While Western officials have often criticized the government in Budapest for backsliding on democracy, they’ve tended to praise it for a steadfast commitment to NATO. But officials from allied countries say Russia increasingly sees Hungary as an operational backdoor into Europe.
“There is tremendous concern that Russia is basically using Hungary as an intel forward operating base in NATO and the EU,” said a former official at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Western officials say Russian intelligence agencies have boosted their presence over the past few years in Hungary, which is a member of Europe’s border-free Schengen zone, to launch a variety of intelligence and sabotage operations in the EU.
“Back in 2014-2015 [the Russians] went from maybe 50-100 intelligence officers up to 300 plus” in Hungary, said the former embassy official.
“Generally we expect they are openly capturing telecoms, running HUMINT [human intelligence] sources all over Europe, planning and staging all kinds of cyber sabotage, linking up with organized crime and supporting folks in parties like [the far-right] Jobbik with fat sacks of cash and maybe even some intel-sourced dirt,” this person added.
Located on NATO’s eastern edge and bordering Ukraine, Hungary is considered an important component of the alliance’s eastern defense strategy. Allied troops are currently training in Hungary as part of NATO’s 10-day Saber Guardian exercises.
With Hungarian troops deployed in Kosovo and Afghanistan and a brigade currently training in Estonia, policymakers in Budapest often make the case that regardless of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s friendliness with the Kremlin, Hungary at its core is a dedicated NATO ally.
Orbán has vowed to boost defense spending, with the goal of it reaching 2 percent of GDP by 2024. All NATO countries have committed to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, although only five member countries currently do so — a matter U.S. President Donald Trump has highlighted in an effort to get European allies to boost their contribution to the organization.
“NATO policy is an exception in Hungarian politics, it’s been consistent,” regardless of any government’s ideology, said one current Hungarian official, who declined to be identified.
“I have never felt like I’m not taken seriously” by NATO partners, he said, adding that “Hungary is quite active” in contributing intelligence to alliance members, especially on Ukraine and the Western Balkans.
In the alliance’s Brussels headquarters, some officials try to highlight the country’s positive efforts. “Hungary contributes a lot to the alliance” within the constraints of its limited resources, said one NATO official. The country “plays a key role in strengthening NATO’s defense in the eastern part of the alliance,” he added.
But among some of their partners, the Hungarian government and security apparatus are regarded as untrustworthy.
“Everyone thinks Hungary is compromised,” said one Westerner who worked for NATO during part of the Orbán years. “I was told not to share anything classified with Hungarians, even if they had the appropriate clearance,” this person said.
The Hungarian government, in response to questions from POLITICO, denied that there are any concerns about Russian operations in Hungary.
“There is no such thing as a ‘special relationship’ between Russia and Hungary,” a spokesman for the government wrote, adding that “the Hungarian intelligence services fulfill of all their duties regardless of the nature or origin of any given issue.”
Since coming to office in 2010, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has reached out to Moscow, meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin frequently and sealing a deal for a €10 billion Russian loan for the Paks II nuclear power plant project.
In late 2016, Hungarian online news portal Index reported that a far-right paramilitary leader, who was accused of shooting a police officer, had for years been meeting with Russian intelligence personnel — on Hungarian territory. Members of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence, have developed relationships with several far-right Hungarian groups, according to the Index report. Some Russian diplomats, moreover, participated in airsoft — a sport that uses non-lethal equipment resembling guns — with far-right activists while Hungarian intelligence services turned a blind eye, the report said.
Suspected Russian intelligence operations have also impacted Hungarians directly. In April, online news portal 444.hu reported that the government’s national consultation website — where Hungarians were asked to answer a series of questions on their personal views — used a tracking code belonging to Russian firm Yandex, which forwarded Hungarians’ data to a server in Russia. Hungary’s National Data Protection Agency, under pressure from critics who say Yandex is bound by Russian law to share information with Russian security services if asked, later announced it would investigate any potential mishandling of Hungarians’ personal data, which the government had originally assured users would not be shared with foreign third parties.
Some Hungarian intelligence professionals are concerned that the Orbán government is leaving Hungary vulnerable to Russian operations.
“If we just look at the past six months, we see obvious Russian activities that cannot be explained in a normal NATO or EU member state,” Ferenc Katrein, a former director of counterespionage and counterterrorism operations at Hungary’s civilian counterintelligence agency, told POLITICO.
He pointed to cases like the national consultation website’s forwarding of Hungarians’ personal information to a Russian server and the recent intimidation of an opposition activist in Budapest by a Chechen who, according to some Hungarian media reports, threatened the activist with the encouragement of a Russian diplomat.
The frequent appearance of stories from Russian state media in Hungarian state-owned outlets and media close to the ruling party has also raised questions about the relationship between Budapest and Moscow.
“While the official Hungarian media is constantly attacking the allies, there is no criticism of the Russians … This contradiction is telling,” said Katrein.
Bilateral military-to-military information-sharing with Western allies “almost evaporated” after Orbán was elected in 2010, said Győző Zakariás, a retired Hungarian army colonel who has studied the challenges facing Hungary’s armed forces.
Some Western officials say the Orbán government is allowing Russian activity to go unchecked for political reasons.
“The Hungarians are tracking [Russian activity] and aren’t exactly thrilled either, but our read was that Hungarian officials don’t believe they can kick them all out without provoking Russia,” said the former U.S. Embassy official.
Some Hungarians, meanwhile, see Western critics as simply hypocritical.
“What we think, we say, and that’s unusual in international politics,” said the Hungarian official, adding that many NATO members are in constant communication with the Kremlin but are simply not as open about their ties.
“I don’t think anyone doubts for a moment that it’s in Hungary’s interest to be part of NATO,” said Eleni Kounalakis, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Hungary between 2010 and 2013.
“Orbán doesn’t want Russian influence in Hungary,” she said. The prime minister “sees his role as navigating among surrounding powers and protecting Hungary’s interests.”
Author: Lili Bayer