Enter Hungary: Europe’s New Gas Station
Hungary is a key gas transit hub—even and especially for Russian gas, despite the War in Ukraine.
If Russia is victorious in Ukraine, the Black Sea will again be a Russian lake, with its littoral states at Moscow’s mercy. All of democratic Europe’s efforts to replace Gazprom supplies with Azerbaijani gas and other suppliers in the region will have come to naught.
But if Russia falls short of outright victory in Ukraine?
Enter Hungary, Europe’s new gas station. For the last year, Hungarian prime minister Victor Orbán has been bolstering Hungarian credentials around the Black and Caspian Seas, appearing in forums as diverse as the Organisation of Turkic States and the Eurasian Development Bank. Orbán is working overtime to establish Hungary as a key conduit for expanded gas resources coming from southern Europe. In late October 2022, Georgia and Hungary signed a strategic cooperative agreement. In January 2023, Hungary and Azerbaijan came together for their own strategic partnership. Most recently, the foreign ministers from Budapest and Tashkent reached their own accord. Serbia remains game to transit Russian energy to Hungary; a cross-border interconnection is in the works. Further southeast, Hungarian politicos were in Sofia meeting pro-Moscow officials in President Ruman Radev’s caretaker government last August.
To Hungary’s southwest, its massive MOL Group has been transporting increasing amounts of liquified natural gas from Croatia’s regasification terminal on Krk Island. An interconnector between Hungary and Slovenia is planned, as is the introduction of bidirectional capacity between Austria and Hungary. Doubling down, gas operators in Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and Hungary penned an MOU for a bidirectional gas corridor. All roads lead to Budapest.
Taken together, Orbán is riding Europe’s collective shift away from Russian energy to make Hungary a key gas transit hub. As Hungary’s prime minister, it’s his prerogative to bolster Hungary’s economy with transit revenue, low energy prices, and a diversified supplier portfolio. But while he works to increase gas supplies from southern Europe, Orbán is locking Hungary into a long-term, energy-based client relationship with Moscow.
A case in point: the Paks II nuclear powerplant today generates nearly 50 percent of Hungarian consumers’ energy needs. This plant is exclusively serviced by Russian energy giant ROSATOM. As such, in January 2023, Orbán firmly declared that Hungary will veto any proposed EU sanctions on Russia’s nuclear energy industry. Another case: Hungary plans to eliminate its Russian gas dependence—by 2050.
The energy comes with strings. Or rather, it comes with iron chains. Budapest hosts twice the number of Moscow’s diplomatic corps than are in Bratislava, Prague, and Warsaw combined. Orbán not only adamantly refuses to send arms to the Ukrainian military, but has worked overtime to hold up EU aid packages to Kyiv.
All indicators suggest that Orbán intends to keep Russian energy sources on tap for decades to come—in exchange for seemingly selling the Kremlin a base for European mischief and a permanent veto in Brussels.
Despite all these developments, Brussels appears unalarmed. Indeed, there are elites throughout EU Member States who callously wish the war would “just go away.” And on the other side of the Atlantic, Putin’s proxy is the European darling among Trumpian Republicans. Their disconnect between the Russo-Ukrainian War, Hungary’s open support for Russia, and U.S. energy security is puzzling, especially given the interconnectivity of global energy markets. CPAC adherents and fans of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson identify with Orbán’s social conservatism, align with his anti-immigration stance, and grin approvingly at his “stick-it-to-the-EU” rhetoric. Are passing culture wars worth the price of the collective security of the United States and our allies?
Viktor Orbán is Vladimir Putin’s man in Brussels and beyond, despite the threats to NATO. As he links up with fellow authoritarian-trending travelers along these gas routes, Orbán’s multiple acts of Russian allegiance should ring alarm bells in Western capitals. Is anyone listening?
Richard Kraemer is the president of the US-Europe Alliance and a senior non-resident fellow at the European Values Center for Security Policy in Prague, Czech Republic.