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Analyst Dániel Csefálvay on Hungary between Russia and Ukraine: the prisoner of war handover

A recent handover of 11 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POW) by Russia to Hungary further severed the diplomatic relations between Hungary and Ukraine. An event surrounded by ambiguity and secrecy brought up questions as to the strength of the relationship between Hungary and Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. ​​The following article looks at the symbolism of the POW transfer, more specifically on how the Hungarian government utilises this instance to confirm the direction of its foreign policy.

The symbolics of the handover

The handover of POWs is described as the result of negotiations between Hungarian and Russian officials. Despite that, Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szíjjártó claims that the Hungarian government was not involved, seeing as the handover had been negotiated solely between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta. Additionally, Russia handed over the Ukrainian POWs to Hungary specifically because they were from the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine. Transcarpathia borders Hungary and is the home to a significant Hungarian minority, which is often the subject of disputes between Ukraine and Hungary.

This is particularly symbolic, seeing as Hungary is the outlier in the EU’s common action against Russia with its much more lenient and open modus operandi. From the Hungarian government’s perspective, the fact that Hungary was able to retrieve prisoners of war from Ukraine showcases that to an extent, Hungary’s contribution to peacefully ending this conflict is more effective than that of the EU.

The symbolism does not stop there, however. By retrieving POWs, Hungary expands on the point of not providing weapons to Ukraine as part of the narrative of “being on the side of peace” by now also managing to save lives. This, too, is highlighted by Szijjártó, who frequently mentions that all the states providing weapons to Ukraine prolong the conflict and contribute to more deaths, whereas Hungary contributes solely with humanitarian aid, focusing on peaceful solutions. It also contrasts the debates within the EU, which are described by Szijjártó as a discussion of countries that are in the “mood for war” and prioritise military solutions.

Church or state?

The key concern raised about the POW handover is that such an operation would be especially difficult to execute without government involvement. According to Ukrainian security analyst Mykhailo Samus, it is extremely unlikely that the respective governments were not involved in the arrangement. Despite the fact that official government involvement was denied, suspicions remained as a transfer this complex is unlikely to have passed under the government’s radar. As such, the idea that this transfer could have been organised solely by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta is questionable. Especially since the Deputy Prime Minister and the Chair of KDNP Zsolt Semjén is known to have good relations with the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. It is apparent that the Russian Orthodox Church has established relations in Hungary that could be utilised to organise such an operation, but likely with some support from the government.

Hence, it is more likely that the Hungarian government was involved but tried to hedge against the risks of being accused of circumventing Ukraine in the prisoner handover, while simultaneously highlighting the benefits of Hungary’s strategy of maintaining steady relations with Russia.

Additionally, Szijjártó stated that despite having no legal obligations towards Ukraine regarding the handover of the POWs, Hungary had informed the Ukrainian authorities. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian authorities claimed that prior to the handover, there had been no communication from the Hungarian side. This yet again highlights that Szijjártó does not view Hungary in a position to support Ukraine unconditionally but instead only in particular circumstances. This is also a symbolic display of the influence of the Hungarian government, which is portraying itself as the protector of the Hungarian minority in Transcarpathia, highlighting that it was Hungary that received the POWs rather than Ukraine.

A Russian-Hungarian relationship in the greater picture

The handover of the prisoners of war and the Hungarian government’s related communication showcases its influence and steady relations with Russia as part of the government’s future geopolitical vision. As the strategic objectives for the upcoming decade have highlighted, the government’s overall goal is to strengthen its strategic connections in the international arena. Hungary is viewed as a middle power between the East and the West, nurturing good relations on both sides. While steps like the POW transfer create an image that the government has political capital on both sides, which could be beneficial, it also undermines Hungary’s established position. Crucially, it contributes to worsening ties with the EU and Ukraine that can alienate the country further from its current allies. Despite Szijjártó arguing that keeping the communication channels open with Russia is essential, actions such as the POW transfer or visits to Moscow gradually decrease the EU’s trust, which in turn undermines Hungary’s position and its potential to act as an intermediary. Such dual exposure, therefore, carries great risks, including a loss of trust from allies both East and West of the Hungarian border.

While the POW exchange did trigger additional tensions with Ukraine and the EU, the Hungarian government can now say that its choice of peaceful means to de-escalate the conflict is truly beneficial, as has been shown in this case. Additionally, currently only according to Ukrainian sources, it was reported that similar transfers of POWs are expected likely utilising the same channels, without any specific details as to where and when but expected in early August. This indicates Hungary is unlikely to change the course of its foreign policy in the near future and aims to maintain a steady relationship with Russia.

Hungary has many reasons for adopting this position, such as Paks II., the massive Russia-backed nuclear power plant investment in Hungary, the over-reliance on gas and oil imports from Russia, but also a growing cultural rift with the EU that is amplified by the Hungarian government’s narrative. As of now, these actions build into the government’s narrative where Hungary is becoming more of a middle-power balancing the political and economic ties between diametrically opposing sides. However, from an outsider’s perspective, Orbán’s political teetering is a risk that could backfire if ties with the EU become more seriously affected in the future, a scenario that is unlikely to be outweighed by the gains brought by a more neutral political position.

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