Yes. Surely it is time for both the EU and NATO to rethink their relationships with Orban and Hungary
Hybrid warfare – the use of non-lethal measures such as bribery, blockade, disinformation, or cyber-attack – by a state to manipulate another state is hardly a new tactic.
First, let’s examine some examples of hybrid warfare throughout recent history:
1) In 1945, much of Europe, including Italy, lay in ruins. Stalin, shocked at the slaughter inflicted on the Russian people, sought security in conquest. In 1947, Stalin encouraged Europe’s communists to seek power. In Italy, the Popular Front, a coalition of left-leaning parties, contested the general election of April 1948. U.S. President Harry Truman, concerned at the possibility of losing Italy to the Soviets, sanctioned a hybrid warfare campaign against the Popular Front that featured:
- letter writing: Italian Americans were encouraged to write to family members in the old country urging them to vote for the Christian Democrats
- financial support: provided by the Central Intelligence Agency for politicians standing against the Popular Front
- the Marshall Plan: a programme of financial aid to struggling European economies such as Italy. Framed as a philanthropic gesture, the Marshall Plan was, in reality, an exercise in geopolitical manipulation intended to prevent countries from falling into the Soviet orbit
- agitation by the Catholic Church against the Popular Front which it described as Godless. Intimidated, many electors rejected the Front.
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2) At the end of the Second World War, Germany was divided into zones administered by the U.S., Britain, France and the USSR. Likewise, the city of Berlin, which was isolated within the Soviet zone. In June 1948, the Soviets, unhappy with currency reform, blockaded West Berlin, a city of two million people. The Allies responded with the Berlin airlift. Moscow’s hybrid warfare (blockade), having been checked by Washington’s hybrid warfare (airlift), Stalin lifted the blockade.
3) The year 1962 saw another Cold War superpower confrontation over the installation by the Soviets of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) in Cuba. Ignoring the hawks in his administration, Kennedy opted for a soft-power or hybrid warfare response, placing the island in quarantine. The quarantine – a euphemism for blockade – involved the U.S. Navy challenging any Soviet-flagged vessel suspected of transporting military hardware to Cuba. The tactic worked. In a quid-pro-quo, the Soviets removed their IRBMs from Cuba and the Americans removed their IRBMs from Turkey. Kennedy’s cerebral approach to the crisis – his eschewing of military action in favour of a hybrid approach involving quarantine, back-channel communication and barter – saved the day.
Today, the Russia-Ukraine War has seen an intensification of hybrid warfare, with the Russians allegedly mounting multiple hybrid warfare assaults on powers sympathetic to Ukraine’s cause. In June 2023, Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE) warned of a growing threat from Russia-aligned hackers: “We assess [the intent of their activity] is very likely to disrupt critical services for psychological impact, ultimately to weaken Canadian support for Ukraine. We assess that this activity will almost certainly continue for the duration of the war, and will likely increase as … new support for Ukraine is announced …. State-sponsored actors are almost certainly striving to improve their capability to sabotage the [operational technology] in critical infrastructure …. State-sponsored cyber activity against the oil and gas sector has become a regular feature of global cyber-threat activity”.
In December 2023, the British government announced that, for the last eight years, Russia has been intercepting government communications, including e-mails sent by Members of Parliament and journalists. Patrick Cockburn observed in the i-Newspaper: “The Russian ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office on Thursday [Dec. 14] to be … admonished for Moscow’s ‘sustained’ attempts to interfere in British politics. Sanctions were placed on two members of a hacking group called ‘Star Blizzard,’ one of whom was an officer in the FSB Russian security service”.
In late December 2023, EU member states met to debate two initiatives on Ukraine. First, whether or not to commence accession talks with Kyiv. Secondly, whether or not to donate 50 billion Euros to Ukraine. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was absent by arrangement when the accession decision was taken. Member states decided to commence accession talks. Unfortunately for Ukraine, Orban was present when the budget decision was taken. As expected, the Hungarian Prime Minister exercised his veto. There would be no money for Ukraine. Orban later crowed: “If we don’t want Ukraine to be a member … then the Hungarian parliament votes it down”.
Several explanations exist for Viktor Orban’s hostility to the EU’s Ukraine policy. First, the EU, concerned about Orban’s increasingly authoritarian rule, has frozen a 22 billion Euro grant to Hungary. Secondly, Orban is wary of alienating Putin, not least because of Hungary’s need for Russian oil and gas. Hungary gets about 80 percent of its gas and 80 percent of its oil from Russia. Orban knows that if he wants to stay in power, he must keep the lights on and central heating working in Hungarian homes. For Putin, a master of hybrid warfare who has no reservations about weaponizing commodities like wheat, coal, gas and oil, Hungary’s energy dependency is a windfall, providing him traction with the Hungarian Prime Minister and, potentially, intelligence on sensitive EU and NATO policies.
Is Viktor Orban Vladimir Putin’s poodle? Current form suggests he is. Given this unhealthy situation, surely it is time for both the EU and NATO to rethink their respective relationships with Hungary. Providing Hungary information on a strictly need-to-know basis would be an appropriate safeguard. Expulsion would be a step too far. As Sun Tzu remarked: “Keep your friends close; keep your enemies closer.”
Dr. Simon Bennett directs the Civil Safety and Security Unit at the University of Leicester. He’s interested in the organizational, social, economic and political origins of risk. He has worked with the Royal Air Force and U.K. National Police Air Service on human factors issues. His latest book, Atomic Blackmail? The weaponisation of nuclear facilities during the Russia-Ukraine War, was published by Libri Publishing Ltd. in 2023.
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