NATO chief to visit Hungary, expected to define Budapest’s opt-out on Ukraine support


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NATO Secreatry-General Jens Stoltenberg (L) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R) arrive arrives for the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, 25 May 2017. [EPA/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

After Hungary requested exemption from military support to Ukraine in return for unblocking key alliance decisions, all eyes are on NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg who is set to visit Budapest on Wednesday (12 June).

Stoltenberg’s visit comes as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said last month he was seeking to “redefine” the terms of his country’s NATO membership over opposition to the alliance’s military support to Ukraine.

Budapest has since been arguing for an opt-out on the next Ukraine support package, which has been under discussion for over a month.

NATO members are currently drafting a plan to ringfence Western political support for Kyiv from any future inside-alliance government changes, which includes NATO taking over the coordination of military aid from the US-led ad hoc Ramstein support group and a to-be-defined future financial pledge.

Hungary has said it does not want to be a part of such plans as Orbán’s government declared military neutrality after Russia illegally invaded Ukraine more than two years ago.

Budapest has since then stepped away from providing military aid and has supported Kyiv only with humanitarian assistance.

However, the country has also complicated numerous political decisions taken at the EU level on military-related assistance, sanctions packages, and  Ukraine’s future membership in the bloc.

It is currently holding up more than €6 billion in reimbursement under an EU scheme for military deliveries to Ukraine, even though it is not paying for them, increasingly causing a split between itself and the other 26 EU member states in favour.

Even though Stoltenberg has been discussing bilaterally with the Hungarians for several months on the details of a potential NATO aid opt-out, the other 31 members are waiting for information on what the opt-out could entail, several NATO diplomats said.

The opt-out could be a “one-off” on the new Ukraine aid coordination mechanism, one NATO diplomat told Euractiv, adding that this would come as Hungary refuses to participate, as its implementation will be funded via NATO’s military budget.

According to their understanding, Budapest will still participate in other parts of the Ukraine aid package, including the pledge to fund large amounts of cash to Kyiv long term, such as $40 billion for a year.

“In practice, Hungary will most likely not contribute to the fund – but the fact is that countries also will not contribute as much as some would have liked,” the NATO diplomat added.

At NATO-level, opt-outs are not new or fully unusual. Turkey, for example, was given a carve-out to participate in the alliance operations in Libya in the early 2010s.

Increasing roadblock

While the opt-out is unlikely to significantly affect NATO’s operationality regarding Ukraine, it is seen as an increasing symptom of Hungary withdrawing and obstructing key international organisations.

“We looked into this, and about 41% of resolutions by the EU on Ukraine have been blocked by Hungary,” Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrelius Landsbergis told reporters last month in Brussels.

“The EPF is blocked; Ukraine’s accession talks are being held hostage by Hungary – and I could go on and on – the [EU’s] declaration on Georgia, the EPF [support] to Armenia – basically, almost all of our discussions and needed solutions and decisions (…) are being blocked by just one country,” Landsbergis said.

“We have to start seeing this as a systematic approach towards any efforts by the EU to have any meaningful role in foreign affairs – and we have to start talking about this,” he added.

His sentiment is increasingly echoed by other counterparts, including inside NATO, as well as other security formats where Budapest sits at the table.

Over the past two years, Budapest’s ties with Russia have become the ‘elephant in the room’.

NATO’s eastern flank countries of the so-called Bucharest Nine (B9) group – which includes Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia – have started internal discussions about booting Hungary from their club, the Financial Times reported this week.

At recent meetings of the formal, Hungary vetoed joint conclusions related to increased military aid and political support to Ukraine.

As Euractiv reported in December, B9 members are also increasingly growing wary about Budapest sitting at the table when sensitive security issues with relation to Russia are discussed.

“It corresponded with the fact that in lower levels of the [B9] format, certain things have not been as openly discussed anymore, and some members have started looking for options to discuss issues more privately, in alternative formats,” one European diplomat then told Euractiv.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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