Did Hungary’s Viktor Orban Turn Trump Against Ukraine?

Why Hungary and Russia might have wanted to shape the U.S. president’s views on Ukraine.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a meeting in the White House Oval Office in Washington on May 13.
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a meeting in the White House Oval Office in Washington on May 13. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Donald Trump has long viewed Ukraine as hopelessly corrupt—or at least that is the reason the U.S. president has reportedly given for his eagerness to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch investigations that could aide his reelection chances in 2020. But Trump’s attitude toward the country may have been reinforced by his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, according to the Washington Post

The role these two leaders played in hardening Trump’s views toward Ukraine was described by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent during a closed-door hearing on Capitol Hill last week as part of the ongoing impeachment investigation, the Post reported. 

Putin’s efforts to salt the earth ahead of Trump’s July phone call with Zelensky come as little surprise. Russia has long sought to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty and its relationship with the West. Less well known is Hungary’s own simmering tensions with Ukraine, which the Hungarian leader has made his own cause for complaint. 

Origin of the feud

The dispute centers on the Hungarian minority in the western Ukrainian region of Transcarpathia. The Treaty of Trianon, which ended World War I, stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its territory, and the border areas of Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine are now home to millions of ethnic Hungarians. 

Almost a century since the treaty was signed, it is still an open wound for Hungary, and the fate of Hungarians living in neighboring countries has long proved to be a sticking point between Budapest and its neighbors. Preserving and enhancing the national identity of ethnic Hungarians in the region has been a cornerstone of Orban’s policy since he was first elected prime minister in 1998. Since 2011, more than 1 million Hungarians in the near abroad have been given Hungarian passports, and in turn they have overwhelmingly supported Orban’s Fidesz party in the polls. The move angered politicians in Ukraine, where dual citizenship is prohibited.

Orban’s commitment to Hungarians abroad is a “useful political football for Orban on a number of levels,” said Christopher Maroshegyi, a senior director at the Albright Stonebridge Group, a Washington-based consulting firm. It enables the Hungarian prime minister to stoke ethnonationalism at home; give Hungary an outsized role at NATO, where Budapest has sought to block Ukraine’s entry; and gesture to Moscow in a bid to secure Russian support. 

Although they haven’t lived in Hungary for more than a century, Hungarians living in the region retain a very strong sense of national identity, much of which is bound up in the fact that they speak Hungarian, a distinct language with few close relatives, Maroshegyi said.

Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko touched this Hungarian third rail in 2017 when he signed a new law stipulating that Ukrainian be the language of instruction in secondary schools across the country, attracting staunch criticism from the country’s Polish-, Romanian-, Hungarian-, and Russian-speaking communities.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto vowed to block any future bids by Ukraine to integrate with the European Union and NATO.

“It’s not that they don’t have an argument. Poroshenko probably wasn’t as sensitive as he could have been to minority issues,” said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. “But the Hungarians have no business holding Ukraine-NATO relations hostage.”

Language has long been a sensitive issue in Ukraine as the country tries to shore up its sovereignty and national identity in the face of Russian aggression. 

Tensions escalated in September 2018 when a video emerged of people allegedly receiving Hungarian passports and swearing allegiance to the country in the Hungarian Consulate in the Ukrainian town of Berehove. Ukraine expelled the Hungarian consul, and in response, the Orban government expelled a consul from the Ukrainian Embassy in Budapest.

Orban comes to Washington

By the time Trump met with the Hungarian president in May of this year, the U.S. president had already been exposed to a stream of unfounded facts about the country from his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and conservative media in the United States, which have alleged that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election in a bid to turn the tide against Trump (despite the overwhelming consensus of the U.S. intelligence community and the FBI that it was Russia). 

But the White House visit by the autocratic Orban came at a pivotal time and may have helped harden Trump’s views of Ukraine. The meeting came just 10 days before a May 23 White House meeting that has emerged as a turning point in the Trump administration’s approach to Ukraine. During the meeting, Trump is reported to have directed his then-envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker; Energy Secretary Rick Perry; and the U.S. ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, to work with Giuliani on Ukraine issues. It was after this meeting that State Department officials whose portfolios included Ukraine were pushed out, according to testimony given by Kent. 

And it was during that meeting that Trump is reported to have described Ukraine as being full of “terrible people” who “tried to take me down” during the 2016 presidential election.

Hungarian Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Zoltan Kovacs denied that Orban had soured Trump on Ukraine. “Behold! this is how the fake news factory works. Exploiting a poorly sourced news item to advance a biased narrative, ignoring facts to build on their anti-Hungary, anti-Orbán editorial stance,” he wrote in a statement published on the About Hungary website.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack