A rather poorly-formed argument questioning Hungary’s loyalty to NATO has emerged in recent months over its opposition to Russian sanctions and calls for negotiations with Moscow. Some have even called for the country’s suspension from the alliance. But critics ignore Hungary’s real-world military-industrial buildup and humanitarian aid support provided to Ukraine which, unlike the fuel sanctions against Russia, has actually produced results and ultimately serve to strengthen NATO.
Were NATO’s leaders to heed calls for Hungary’s dismissal, they would be playing right into the hands of Vladimir Putin by creating fissures within the alliance and ignoring the steps the country has made that benefit the alliance’s defensive posture.
Since former President Donald Trump’s call for European NATO members to step up their game, Hungarians have undertaken an unprecedented effort to modernize their defense forces; an act that was ironically characterized as “democratic backsliding” in 2020 before becoming in vogue again with Putin’s aggression. Whereas Germany mostly failed to deliver on Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s grand speeches of plans to expand his nation’s military might, Budapest has actually begun to push a lot more capital into the defense sector; as much as $1.4 billion.
Defense industry firms have taken note. Europe-based military contractors such as Dynamit Nobel Defense, Colt CZ Group, and Rheinmetall have been attracted to Hungary for its existing industrial base and its need to upgrade its national military arsenal. While the current focus is to modernize Hungary’s own forces, the country’s central location on the European continent makes it a prime logistics node for transporting products all around Europe to other NATO partners.
The most prominent example has been Rheinmetall. The German manufacturer has begun initial production of the Lynx infantry fighting vehicle with full production scheduled to commence in July of this year. The Lynx is predicted to become a favorite of NATO’s forces, potentially replacing the Bradley fighting vehicle, a long-time workhorse for Western militaries. Hungary was the first customer. The Lynx also has the potential to operate remotely without putting a crew in danger, which explains Rheinmetall’s manufacturing plant being built as part of the Zalazone complex in Zalaegerszeg, a testing track as well as a research and development center for self-driving cars. Clearly, the industry considers Hungary important for the future of European defense.
All of these developments seem to escape Hungary’s fierce critics, who continue to paint the country as a traitor to the West rather than a crucial pillar for its defense due to its divergence from the collective message-signaling opposition to Russia.
With regards to Western economic sanctions, they are not a prerogative of NATO but rather of the EU, and Hungary has in fact voted in favor of every single one of them despite Budapest’s serious concerns that sanctions will not achieve their intended goal of debilitating Russia enough to end the war.
Besides ignoring the facts on the ground, there is clearly a double standard when it comes to judging Hungary versus the rest of Europe. If any deviation from mainstream EU position on the war or act of dissent is treasonous, then what do we call France after Macron’s calls for negotiations with Russia? Or Germany’s initial refusal to provide tanks for Ukraine’s war? Should these countries also be suspended from NATO? Don’t hold your breath for an answer.
As an American currently in Hungary, I am rooting for a victory for the West in the bloodiest war in Europe since World War II. Believe me: there is not a whole lot of sympathy for Putin on the streets of Budapest or in the countryside. Hungary has, in fact, shown greater support for Ukraine than anybody dares to give the country credit: over two million refugees fleeing the conflict have received safe passage and support from Hungary, with approximately 200,000 taking asylum here. That alone is equal to the population of Hungary’s second-largest city. Yet you don’t see refugee camps anywhere in Hungary. Why? Because Hungarians literally let their Ukrainian neighbors live with them in their spare rooms, vacation homes, or converted basements. Some have housed total strangers for over a year for free—a notable contribution for the citizenry of such a small nation. One is curious to know if other countries in the West have made such efforts.
Along with ignoring Hungary’s humanitarian efforts, the country’s loudest critics have no appreciation of the efforts of the country’s men and women in uniform to defend NATO’s eastern flank. Last year, a battalion of Hungarian troops deployed along the nation’s border with Ukraine, providing aid to Ukrainian refugees as well as standing ready to fight should Putin’s ambitions push farther westward. Last year, the Hungarian Air Force led aerial defense efforts patrolling the Baltic region, keeping watch for Russian incursions into NATO airspace.
At the heart of the conflict between Russia and the West lies the most important principle: freedom. Just as Ukraine has the right to self-determination, nations of the West cooperate in an alliance of consensus, not submission. One must not forget that Hungary has a long history of living under foreign oppression—including the Russians. The “obey or be punished” line brings back memories of imperialism and occupation the Hungarians suffered at the hands of the Soviets, not the democratic collaboration that America fosters.
The consequences have already become manifest. In the shadow of Budapest approving Finland’s application to the alliance is its continued deferment of approving Sweden’s admission. When Swedish prime minister Ulf Kristersson demanded an explanation, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s political director, Balázs Orbán (no relation), had an answer at the ready. During Kristersson’s previous position as head of Sweden’s Moderate Party, he had called for the EU to “break Hungary’s development” through financial pressure in response to “xenophobia,” and “renouncing support to Ukraine,” despite all Hungary’s actions showing directly the opposite. Asking for help from a nation that one previously tried to morally posture over does not make for good political optics. A recent Hungarian parliamentary delegation’s affirmative call for Sweden’s application to NATO lends hope that the storm will pass, but the affair demonstrates the folly of states sowing bad blood when bigger dangers loom.
Implementing a policy of conformity and “purification” within NATO will only widen fissures between member states. To avoid that, the West must prioritize unity along with tangible accomplishments like Hungary’s growing military industry and support to Ukraine’s exiles while setting aside the virtue-signaling that its detractors espouse. The former will strengthen Europe’s defense while the latter will strengthen the power that NATO is meant to keep at bay and out of Europe: Russia.
Logan C. West is an American visiting research fellow at the Danube Institute in Budapest, Hungary. His research focuses on geopolitics and cyber affairs of Eastern and Central Europe. Logan is also a graduate student at the Institute of World Politics in Washington DC.