Viktor Orban: West Is ‘In A War With Russia’
It happened again. This evening was the third time I've been in a small group session with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. I told the visiting journalists and publishers that they were going to be blown away by this guy, because they're not going to believe how different he is from the way he is portrayed in the Western media. He's sharp, funny, brilliant, and completely confident. He's not hovered over by press aides, and he doesn't guard his words to the point where he says nothing but mush. He's really interesting. As I told the folks I talked to before hand, at the conference, who were invited to meet later with the PM, "You're not going to believe that a world leader is actually like this."
As usual, after the event, there were stunned. Orban spent two hours with us, answering every question -- even particularly tough ones from a Polish journalist -- and was clearly loving it. I was never around Bill Clinton personally, but the things I read about how he was a natural politician -- it's at least as true of Viktor Orban. Last year, I was talking to a Fidesz politician about the PM, and he said there's not another politician in this country who can go from strategizing at the top level, to talking to country people at a farmer's market, and be utterly genuine in both places. I believe it. If he were on TV more in the United States, the view people have of Hungary would be totally different.
Here's what a natural politician he is. Towards the end of our two-hour session, he mentioned that today is Thursday, the day he always sets aside for personal reading. A journalist asked him what he's reading now. He mentioned a couple of books, one of which is a Hungarian translation of a Joe Biden biography. He said he wanted to know something about the American president. He added that Biden is not his favorite political leader, but that he really admires the political tenacity of the man, especially the way Biden fought back after his first wife died in a car crash. It was clear that Orban really meant it. It was one old general signaling his admiration for one on the other side, simply because he found something admirable in the man's character. Only somebody who has been on the inside of politics for a long time could make that kind of judgment.
The prime minister spent two hours with about fifteen of us. The Americans there included Sohrab Ahmari, Gladden Pappin, European Conservative editor Mario Fantini, and Spectator US editor Zack Christenson. Orban answered every question we asked him, and probably would have gone on longer had we not had to get to a conference dinner. I've never seen a politician who so viscerally loves what he does. Orban was so candid that I asked an aide several times if this was really on the record. Only two or three times did he go off the record, and those were only to offer brief judgments on certain public figures.
The big questions were about the Russia-Ukraine war. Orban is a goat among the NATO sheep. He has from virtually the beginning pushed hard for a cease fire and a peaceful settlement -- not out of any particular love for the Russians, but out of concern for the fate of Hungary, and Europe. He has been falsely smeared as a Putin shill, but he genuinely doesn't seem to give a rat's ass.
Orban said that the West needs to understand that Putin cannot afford to lose, and will not lose, because he's up for re-election next year, and he cannot run as the president who lost a war. What's more, he said, Russia cannot allow NATO to establish a presence in Ukraine. The time has long passed when Russia might have been able to conquer Ukraine, or install a friendly regime. Had Russia won a quick victory, that might have been possible, but it's hopeless now. Therefore, said Orban, Russia's goal is to make Ukraine an ungovernable wreck, so the West cannot claim it as a prize. At this, they have already succeeded. "It's Afghanistan now," he said. "The land of nobody." (Meaning: No Man's Land.)
The West doesn't understand that time is on Russia's side in Ukraine. Russia is a huge country, and can mobilize a vast army. Ukraine is already running out of troops. When that happens, then what?
"We are in big, big trouble," he said, of the West. If Russia's coming spring offensive proves successful, then the NATO countries are going to be faced with the question of do we send in soldiers to fight for Ukraine? This is not something Orban thinks the American people are considering, but it is front to mind among a growing number of Europeans, whose countries stand to be devastated if war spreads.
Really? NATO troops fighting Russians in Ukraine?
Yes, said Orban. It sounds crazy today, "but if you look at the tendency of how we got to this point today, it can't be ruled out."
The West is "in a war with Russia. That's the reality," he said. "Every day we are moving further in."
To add clarity that was plain from the context of his discussion, Viktor Orban doesn't want the West to be in a war with Russia. He is pushing for peace, and has been from the beginning, saying nobody wins from this war. But he says that far too many Westerners are deluding themselves about what's really happening -- and what could happen. The West might think it's not in war with Russia, but by sending more and more weapons, and getting closer to actual troop intervention, Western leaders are playing an extremely dangerous game with themselves, with Russia, and with Western publics. A journalist asked the prime minister if he thought the war could go nuclear. "I can't exclude that they would use it," he said, of the atomic bomb. He clarified that he was talking about tactical battlefield nukes, not mushroom clouds over Warsaw and Berlin -- "but I can't exclude that either." If Ukraine somehow, using Western weapons, gets to the point of crossing the border into Russian territory, then the future of the world will be so bright the West will have to wear shades.
Someone pointed out that the Russians have had a sorry battlefield performance to this point. Yes, said Orban, it's true. But if you look at Russian history, this is how it goes with the Russians at war. They start out poorly, but after a while, they figure things out, and then become hard to stop. He expects that will be the case this time. He also mentioned at the start of the session that Russia's being pushed into an alliance with Iran is extremely dangerous for Israel, and expressed hope that Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, whose adult son was sitting at the table, could become a peacemaker between Russia and Ukraine. Though Ukraine has had some amazing successes against Russia, Orban said in the long term, he can't see that we in the West are on the winning side, especially considering Russia's manufacturing capacity.
Orban talked about being the lone dissenter among the 27 European Union leaders on Ukraine war policy. He said it's very frustrating, because his colleagues in leadership won't debate the wisdom of this war. Why not?
"They don't know who they are," he said bluntly.
He explained that if you asked them to define themselves in relation to the war, they would say, I am the leader of a country standing on the right side of history. That conviction, and being pressed hard by Washington, as well as "fear of the liberal media," is what motivates their thinking -- not a consideration of what's in the best interest of their own countries. Orban said he sees his role as the elected leader of Hungary to help his people deal with the challenges they face today, and to prepare them for tomorrow's challenges. "But I would be the only one to understand [the job] that way," he said.
Orban said French president Emmanuel Macron is the only other European leader who thinks in a visionary way. He said that if he (Orban) proposed that Europe needs to return to its Christian roots to be able to cope with the problems ahead, Macron would disagree, and would propose a liberal ideological strategy. To all the other European leaders, the whole question would seem stupid.
(See, this is one of the reasons I stay frustrated with Western media coverage of Orban. Even if you can't stand his politics, the man is deep. He thinks hard about this stuff, at the level of grand strategies and principles.)
Orban made a pointed, and poignant, remark about the Germans in the current war: "The Germans are suffering because they know what's in their national interest, but they're not able to say it." He meant that the German leadership knows it has no business being involved in a war with Russia, but is, for whatever reasons, unable to say no to Washington.
Someone raised the possibility of a coup d'état in Russia that removed Putin. Orban reacted strongly, saying that there is nobody in line to succeed Putin who would be anything but more hawkish. That would solve nothing.
One of the most interesting parts of the evening's discussion came when one of the Europeans present asked the prime minister about the sharp division between Hungary and the European Union government. He flatly acknowledged that there is a huge gap between Budapest and Brussels, and the chasm is expanding. Why? Orban said it has to do with a fundamental difference between their rival ideas of what a human being is -- and, he implied, what society is for.
This is why they are so far apart on gender ideology, he said. And take immigration, for example. He said most EU countries ask themselves the question, "How can we co-exist with a large Muslim migrant minority?"
Orban: "What is the challenge for Hungary? Not to have to ask the question of co-existence." He said that Hungary has zero Islamic immigration now, and he wants to keep it that way. Naturally EU liberals will consider that bigoted. But Hungary doesn't have to deal with the blessings of diveristy that Spain is confronting today:
Spanish police on Thursday raided the home of a young Moroccan man held over the machete attacks at two Catholic churches the previous night that left a church officer dead and a priest injured in the southern city of Algeciras.
“The investigation is continuing along the logical premise that this could be a case of terrorism, but we are in the initial phase and all the possibilities are open,” Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said after the police completed their search of the suspect’s home.
The suspect is a Moroccan citizen with no prior criminal record “either in Spain or any other country,” the interior ministry said. He wasn't “on the radar” of authorities for possible radical activity, Grande-Marlaska added.
Authorities identified him as 25-year-old Yassine Kanjaa, an official with Spain’s National Police with direct knowledge of the case told The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity as dictated by police policy.
Orban said that it is painful for him personally to have Hungary in the EU, subject to its bullying, but there is no question that Hungary will remain in the EU, because its economic prosperity depends on it. Still, it is tough to take being pushed around from the EU leadership. Orban's point is that as difficult as it is personally to have to deal with the EU bureaucracy, it has to be done, because it is in Hungary's national interest.
"Everything bad from the last thirty years of European history is embedded in Brussels," he said. They have to demonize Hungary because if Hungary is a success at anything, it renders EU policies and ideology suspect.
"It's not easy for me going there and being the bastard of everything," he said, of his rocky relationship to Brussels. Orban said if you're going to be the kind of politician who has what it takes to stand up to them, you have to have a spine of steel, and care more about what your voters say than what your opponents think of you.
He said successful conservative leaders have to build coalitions of disparate voting blocs long before the election, and convince them that the leaders' victory on election day will also be their victory. He said you can't be timid, cautious, and calculating, but rather bold, leading with conviction. And you have to get buy-in from wealthy conservatives who are prepared to invest in various initiatives, like building media networks. Plus, you need to bring conservative intellectuals in by convincing them that the changes you want to make are "deep."
Orban said that in the 2010 election that brought him to power, he understood that the Hungarian people were sick and tired of the Left, which had ruined the country economically. He said Fidesz ran on a one-word slogan: "Enough!"
I asked the prime minister, a Calvinist, about his conviction that the regeneration of Western civilization depends on the recovery of the Christian faith.
"Christianity can't be regenerated by politics," he said, adding that faith is always, in the end, about the conversion of an individual's heart. Yet he added that if Christians don't wake up and resist the cultural trends washing them away, the faith is going to disappear.
"The best hope today is the Orthodox," he said. "They are not arguing, but believing. We [Protestants and Catholics] are arguing all the time."
Orban went on to call Orthodox Christians "the most important reserve" for Christians in the West to regain their religious footing. (Later, I asked the prime minister, "Did you know that I'm Orthodox?" His eyes widened. "You are? I thought you were Catholic!")
About the sorry state of religious life in Hungary, where relatively few people go to church, the prime minister said, "We don't have any illusions about what we look like." Still, if Europe wants to survive, it must return to the faith that created the sacred order on which its civilization was built, says Viktor Orban.
"My analysis is that this social structure built up over the last thirty years is totally against human nature," he said. "It's bound to collapse, hopefully not in an Armageddon way."
If the hegemony of gender ideology and other manifestations of progressive insanity can be broken swiftly, then "the change back to tradition will be far quicker than we can imagine. But first, we have to crush them politically."
Continuing on the intersection of religion and politics, Orban said he didn't understand how you could be a conservative political leader without being a person of real faith. It is no coincidence, he said, that Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland are leading the fight to defend traditional values in Europe. They are part of Europe that has been less affected by corrosive modernity.
The prime minister's top political adviser, Balazs Orban (no relation), interjected, saying, "Without faith, politics are very scary. If you don't have faith, you will want to create heaven on earth."
The prime minister said that politicians can give people a better material life, but it is not their job to give people a happy life.
We talked briefly about his trip to Rome to pay his respects to Benedict XVI at the former pope's wake. Orban said that Hungarian Calvinists recognize that Catholicism is absolutely vital for the future of Christianity, and that if the Catholic Church is weak, it's bad for all Christians. He returned to the importance of religious revival for civilizational revival, and said this is why he likes to visit religious leaders wherever he travels.
The session finally ended with Orban leading the group out to the balcony overlooking the city below. His office is in a former Carmelite monastery, from which one has a commanding view of the Pearl of the Danube.
It was endearing to watch the prime minister showing off the highlights of the capital city down below to visiting foreigners, with obvious delight. One imagines that all national leaders are patriots, but I don't think I've seen love of country so radiant in a politician since Ronald Reagan. But it's a different kind of love. Reagan's love of America was the love of a cowboy watching the sun set over his ranch, his heart filling with a warm, golden glow of gratitude. Orban's love of Hungary strikes me as that of a scrappy street fighter who cheeks redden with blood as he gets ready to throw down to defend his family.
Here's a photo of young Viktor Orban in 1989, delivering the speech that launched his political career. He was invited to speak as a student leader at the reburial of former PM Imre Nagy and five others who were murdered by the invading Soviets in 1956. In his speech, delivered while Hungary was still under Communist Party rule (watch it here; turn on the subtitles), young Orban demanded that the Soviet troops get out of his country, and pointed out that senior leaders of the present government standing by the coffins of the fallen heroes of 1956 represent the same government that killed them. This is not a man easily intimidated:
UPDATE: I clarified the headline and a quote to make it clear that Viktor Orban does not believe that Hungary is in a war with Russia, but that the West has foolishly stumbled into a situation that is a de facto war. The point he was making was along these lines:
UPDATE.2: Good grief, I'm still getting peppered by questions from the Hungarian opposition media, who are entertaining a conspiracy theory that I changed what I reported about Viktor Orban's statement regarding the EU under government pressure. Not true. When a couple of friends who read the Hungarian media texted me the morning after this post appeared, to say that the opposition papers were claiming Orban said he wanted Hungary to leave the EU, I told them that was absurd, that in fact Orban was talking about his own personal difficulties dealing with Brussels, but said there's no doubt but that Hungary will stay in the EU. He went on to make a broader point about how a leader has to advocate for the best interests of his people, even if that means being thought a "bastard" by the people in Brussels -- and to follow policies (like staying in the EU) that he personally finds distasteful, but that is in the country's best interests. I don't think anybody recorded the session (I know I didn't), but I found the page in my notebook where I wrote down Orban's exact quote. What I should have said, adding detail, is that when he said, "Definitely not, but we have to," he smiled, indicating that there was something of a self-deprecating joke in this (at least that's how I took his smile.)
This episode has taught me something important about the opposition media in this country, none of it good
P.S. You know these notes are authentic, because my handwriting is horrible when I write fast: