Europe vows new Russia sanctions over Bucha carnage. But Putin’s closest EU ally could doom that plan

April 5, 2022, 11:58 AM UTC

Stunned by the scenes of mass graves and executions in Bucha, outside Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, European Union leaders are racing to tighten sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin—potentially blocking Russian ships from EU ports; banning imports of Russian coal and some oil; and further isolating Russian oligarchs.

But one person could greatly complicate the EU’s plan: Hungary’s far-right nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who swept to victory in elections on Sunday, clinching his fourth term in office. Under EU rules, sanctions need the approval of all 27 members, and little Hungary, with just 10 million people, has an equal vote to major powers like France and Germany.

Even before Sunday’s election, Orbán, who has been in power since 2010, made it clear he would not support further measures against Putin—his close ally.

“Orbán on steroids”

“We do not need to be linked by empires or be part of them,” he said on Monday, echoing his campaign message that Hungary needed independence from EU decisions taken in Brussels. “Patriotism does not belong to the past but to the future,” he said. Despite Hungary relying heavily on EU funds, Orbán has spent 12 years savaging the EU’s human rights rules, saying he represented “illiberal democracy.”

Now “he feels very much strengthened,” says Jávor Benedek, who heads the EU mission for Hungary’s capital Budapest, an anti-Orbán stronghold. After the election, “we can expect Orbán on steroids,” he told Fortune on Tuesday.

That could spell trouble for the EU’s plan to punish Putin for the civilian devastation in Ukraine. U.S. President Joe Biden said on Monday he believed the Bucha killings were a “war crime,” a classification that, if proved, would trigger much tighter sanctions. Russia has called the gruesome images in Bucha fake.

Orbán’s alliance with Putin runs deep. Just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, the two met in Moscow, where Orbán signed a long-term contract to buy Russian gas. He also has a nuclear power contract with Russia. And in November, Putin awarded Hungary’s Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó Russia’s Order of Friendship, the country’s highest honor for a foreigner. “Hungary is in a way a Russian proxy state,” Benedek says.

Article 7

Yet one strategy could suspend Orbán’s voting rights at the EU Council and clear the way for tough new Russian sanctions. The EU has attempted for years to punish Orbán under its so-called Article 7, which acts against members that violate its core democratic principles, such as free speech and a free press. The procedure has been blocked for years by Poland, another EU member that also faces scrutiny for its antigay laws and lack of judicial independence.

But Poland and Hungary’s alliance has shattered over the war in Ukraine, with Poland fiercely supportive of Ukraine’s fight against Russia.

Now EU officials are considering whether to excuse Poland, in exchange for Poland backing their move against Orbán—and paving the way for tough Russian sanctions. Benedek says that discussions are underway and the deal could conclude within a few months. “This is a new situation,” he says.

A decade of hacking

Within the EU, Orbán’s ties to Putin could pose risks beyond sanctions.

Russia has hacked into Hungary’s government computers for more than a decade, according to the Hungarian investigative journal Direkt36, giving it access to classified documents of the EU and NATO, of which Hungary is also a member. The journal said that while Orbán is aware of the hacking, he appears to have done little to stop it. Hungary’s foreign ministry has called the revelations “campaign lies.”

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