The Threat to the West Is Inside the House

The United States and Europe need to toughen up on the spoilers in their own ranks.

By , an advisor to the Barish Center for Media Integrity at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and , a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speaks during a joint press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Belgrade on May 15, 2020.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speaks during a joint press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Belgrade on May 15, 2020.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speaks during a joint press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Belgrade on May 15, 2020. ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s Vladimir Putin may not occupy Ukraine anytime soon, but he is keeping two other European countries firmly in his fold. The results of recent, less than completely free and fair elections in Serbia and in Hungary are victories for the Kremlin. Unsurprisingly, Putin was among the first to congratulate Aleksandar Vucic and Viktor Orban on their reelections. Both of them, after all, had been doing his bidding for years.

Both Washington and Brussels have exercised “strategic patience” in dealing with Hungary and Serbia, hoping for piecemeal change for the better. Yet when both Budapest and Belgrade are openly siding with Russia against the broader trans-Atlantic community at a time of war, the all-carrots approach is no longer tenable. Lest NATO and the European Union be made into paper tigers by Putin’s closest European allies, the two organizations must show their teeth.

Unless the costs inflicted on entrenched leaders such as Vucic and Orban exceed their perceived gains from undermining the blocs they are a part of or wish to join, there is no reason for them to stop misbehaving. There are sharp limits to the Western dialogue-fixes-all approach. Pursuing it further with Belgrade and Budapest, in face of all the evidence, and expecting a different result is the very definition of insanity.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin may not occupy Ukraine anytime soon, but he is keeping two other European countries firmly in his fold. The results of recent, less than completely free and fair elections in Serbia and in Hungary are victories for the Kremlin. Unsurprisingly, Putin was among the first to congratulate Aleksandar Vucic and Viktor Orban on their reelections. Both of them, after all, had been doing his bidding for years.

Both Washington and Brussels have exercised “strategic patience” in dealing with Hungary and Serbia, hoping for piecemeal change for the better. Yet when both Budapest and Belgrade are openly siding with Russia against the broader trans-Atlantic community at a time of war, the all-carrots approach is no longer tenable. Lest NATO and the European Union be made into paper tigers by Putin’s closest European allies, the two organizations must show their teeth.

Unless the costs inflicted on entrenched leaders such as Vucic and Orban exceed their perceived gains from undermining the blocs they are a part of or wish to join, there is no reason for them to stop misbehaving. There are sharp limits to the Western dialogue-fixes-all approach. Pursuing it further with Belgrade and Budapest, in face of all the evidence, and expecting a different result is the very definition of insanity.

The two regimes share more than a superficial affinity manifested recently at the opening of a new Chinese-funded railway between the two capitals, at which the two strongmen attracted ridicule for waving at nonexistent crowds.

Both leaders exploit grievances about their countries’ lost territories and prestige. At the 100th anniversary of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, Orban called on the present generation to reverse the post-World War I settlement and restore a “Great Hungary.” Similarly, Serbian nationalists never quite accepted the demise of Yugoslavia and the emergence of independent countries such as Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina with their own ethnic Serbian populations.

The yearning for former imperial glory promoted by Vucic and Orban harbors the same potential for violence and destruction as the one that is driving Putin’s genocide in Ukraine. In Serbia’s case, to talk of “potential” violence is a dramatic understatement. After the world had seen Slobodan Milosevic’s genocide of Bosniak Muslims in the 1990s firsthand, a young Vucic thought it a good idea to join Milosevic’s government. “For every Serb killed, we will kill 100 Muslims,” he vowed to Serbia’s parliament in 1995.

Since becoming president in 2017, Vucic toned down his rhetoric and pledged to bring Serbia closer toward the EU, although, fundamentally, he has pursued the same agenda as his predecessors. The Serbian government called for the creation of the “Serb World”—a Balkan parallel to Putin’s “Russian World” where all Serbs would live and be united under a common cultural framework. In Montenegro, Serbia seeks to exercise influence via the Orthodox Church. In Bosnia, the Milorad Dodik-controlled Republika Srpska, a client of Belgrade and Moscow, regularly threatens to secede, while keeping the country’s complex federal politics paralyzed.

In all of this, Serbia is largely acting in accordance with Moscow’s wishes. Serbia is completely dependent on Russian energy, which Russia successfully uses as a negotiating tool. Although the EU is imposing severe sanctions on Russia, this week Putin and Vucic discussed further energy cooperation. Moscow has also supplied Belgrade with weapons, securing Serbia’s role as a regional power, which threatens neighboring NATO countries. Serbia’s destabilization of the Western Balkans meets Putin’s objectives by distracting NATO’s leaders and straining their cohesion. To that point, Belgrade and Moscow also pledged to fight “color revolutions” together.

Orban’s methods might be more subtle, but his goals are much the same—and similarly consistent with Putin’s ambitions. The Fidesz party government has been giving away Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries, buying soccer clubs in formerly Hungarian areas, and channeling funds into Hungarian parties abroad. At regular intervals, Hungary’s neighborhood policy rattles the country’s neighbors, including Slovakia and Romania, which understandably dread the prospect of large irredentist populations holding Hungarian passports on their territory. Beyond undermining regional cohesion, its revanchism has long placed Hungary in a chronic conflict with Ukraine, as Orban has repeatedly undercut Kyiv’s efforts to forge a closer relationship with NATO and the EU.

In Russia’s genocidal war, not only has Hungary ruled out providing any military assistance to Ukraine, but it has also prohibited any such shipments from other NATO countries to move through its own territory. Orban’s government, touting its own 15-year contract with the Russian state energy company Gazprom, has also pledged to veto any energy sanctions. “We will by no means allow Hungarians to be made to pay the price of war,” Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said last week. In a bow to Yugoslavia’s communist dictator, Josip Broz Tito, Vucic also wants to have a “neutral” foreign-policy balance among Beijing, Moscow, Brussels, and Washington. While Serbia did vote in favor of a recent United Nations resolution calling on Russia to stop its war in Ukraine, it is rejecting any sanctions on Russia over Ukraine and pledged not to join “anti-Russian hysteria.”

For far too long, Vucic and Orban have been able to have their cake and eat it, too. They have benefited, in Serbia’s case, from candidate status and being on the receiving end of EU assistance, and, in the case of Hungary, from the pocketing of literally billions in EU funds by Orban-connected oligarchs. It would be the height of fecklessness for Brussels and Washington to respond to the two leaders’ reelection by doing more of the same.

Following a move by the European Commission on Tuesday, Hungary is being cut off from EU funding on rule-of-law, or “conditionality,” grounds. That situation must be made permanent. Budapest must also be excluded, by default, from future EU initiatives that can be pursued under the rubric of enhanced cooperation among the 26 remaining member states. Serbia’s EU candidate status must be revoked, too. Most importantly, this is time for leadership from Germany. For far too long, Vucic and (even more significantly) Orban were able to hide behind German equivocation on Russia. If Berlin takes a more hawkish view on Putin’s genocidal regime—which it should for reasons unrelated to Serbia and Hungary—the multivector foreign policy pursued by Budapest and Belgrade will no longer be tenable.

Adopting a much harsher tone toward both an EU member (Hungary) and a candidate state (Serbia) would have a deterrent effect on other governments that are toying with the idea of entrenching themselves by undermining principles of rule of law—or of making overtures to Moscow and Beijing. Particularly in the Western Balkans, a reminder that the EU stands for something would have a salutary impact on countries’ genuine efforts to join by actually meeting accession criteria and not simply using the EU as a cash cow.

Washington, too, would do well to signal to Hungary that its current geopolitical outlook is incompatible with having a future in NATO and impose sanctions on Fidesz politicians and the regime’s most prominent kleptocrats. Last year already, the White House started sanctioning Serbian officials who are destabilizing or threatening the integrity of Serbia’s neighbors. That policy ought to be strengthened and expanded further to cover a broader swath of individuals.

Vucic and Orban are clever political actors. But, as the histories of their own countries show, clever triangulation to extract favors from all sides can misfire terribly at a time of war. It is time for the West to force the hands of the two aspiring dictators, make them pick sides, and face the consequences.

Ivana Stradner is an advisor to the Barish Center for Media Integrity at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Twitter: @DaliborRohac

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.