Dalibor Rohac

Orbán is doubling down on Russian energy

Victor Orbán (Credit: Getty images)

Viktor Orbán’s speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, Texas, delivered everything the audience could have asked for. From an emphasis on ‘winning’, through an equivalence between the modern-day left and Cold War communism, to extolling the virtues of Hungary’s border ‘wall’, he covered it all.

Its concluding segment, dedicated to Russia’s war against Ukraine, however, was significant by what it conveniently omitted: Hungary’s deepening energy dependence on Russia. Of course, nobody at CPAC was going to give Orbán a hard time over the fact that, his expression of solidarity with Ukraine notwithstanding, Hungary continues to import 65 percent of its oil and 85 percent of its natural gas from Russia – numbers the Hungarian government shows no intention of reducing.

In fact, the focus in Budapest is, instead, on expanding imports from Russia. In July, foreign minister Péter Szijjártó visited Moscow with the purpose of getting the Kremlin to commit to additional deliveries for the upcoming fall and winter. On his recent Fox News appearance, Szijjártó claimed that ‘there are no alternative sources in the region, and there are no infrastructural possibilities’ other than Russian pipelines and Russian gas.

Orbán is using this as an opportunity to turn public opinion against what he sees as weak and decadent West

That is true but only in the immediate short term. As the Germans rush to augment their liquified natural gas (LNG) infrastructure and the efforts by Three Seas Initiative over the better part of the past decade show, such alternatives exist, but they require policy decisions, money, and time. Thanks to years of planning, for example, Lithuania has now been able to withstand being cut off from Russian energy completely. In 2012, Hungary’s own Energy Strategy saw diversifying away from Russian gas as a priority.

Today, however, Hungary is doubling down on Russian energy – including by cementing Rosatom’s project of expanding the Paks nuclear power plant at a time when, say, Finland has decided to scrap its contracts with Russia’s energy monopolist.

Here is what Szijjártó and Orbán do not want Western conservative audiences to realise: they do not think Hungary’s energy dependence on Russia is a problem. If anything, it is preferable to the alternative, a dependence on the United States.

Sounds farfetched? Listen to the prime minister himself. In his now-infamous speech at Băile Tușnad a fortnight ago, Orbán accused the United States, not Russia, of using energy as a geopolitical weapon. In 2013, ‘the Americans launched new technologies for extracting raw materials and energy’ – fracking. Immediately, ‘they have set about strongly encouraging their allies – in other words us – to buy supplies from them’, he said.

Despite efforts by the Trump administration to make Europeans buy American ‘freedom gas’, Orbán continues, ‘[Europe] tried to protect the Russo-German energy axis for as long as possible, so that we could bring Russian energy into Europe.’ Today, unfortunately, American coercion goes hand in hand with sanctions on Russian energy – soon to be followed by similar policies on ‘uranium, nuclear energy’.

‘America made no secret of the fact that it would use energy as a foreign policy weapon’, Orbán emphasises. ‘The fact that others are being accused of this should not deceive us.’ In this topsy-turvy story, Europe’s energy ties to Russia are not an unfortunate fact, dictated by history and geography, as Szijjártó would tell Western audiences. These ties are benign – and under threat from US imperialism.

Ignore the fact that because of the lack of immediately available alternatives – such as American LNG – Europeans are now paying five-, six-, and sometimes ten times as much for natural gas than Americans. That, of course, is a sign that Washington’s cunning plan to use the war in Ukraine to tie Europeans to US energy sources through coercion and sanctions.

Berlin has been the target of well-deserved criticisms, including by US Republicans, for energy policies that made Germany vulnerable to Russian extortion. But in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Germany reduced its Russian natural gas imports from 55 percent of the total to 35 percent, and vowed to eliminate Russian oil imports by the end of this year.

There is no doubt that Germans ought to do more. In fact, I argue exactly that in a recent piece for the Telegraph. But just as Germany is planning to open two temporary LNG terminals early in 2023 to process natural gas imports from the United States, restarting coal power plants, and even mulling a return to nuclear power, Orbán is using the opportunity to turn public opinion against what he sees as weak and decadent West while deepening his country’s deeply asymmetric relationship with Russia.

The exact nature of the hubris that motivates him almost does not matter anymore. More shocking is that Orbán’s efforts to erode his country’s place within Western alliances and to actively damage Hungary’s ties to the United States are finding a supportive audience on the other side of the Atlantic – particularly among those who promise to put America first and/or to make it great again.