Wednesday

8th Jul 2020

Opinion

All Quiet on the Eastern Front?

  • The next conflict in Europe? The Zakarpattia region in Ukraine is home to 150,000 Hungarians - and Viktor Orban, with the help of Russia, is trying to reunite it with Hungary (Photo: Vladimir Kud)

It is time for Europe to wake up to an emerging threat on its eastern flank.

Russia is actively sponsoring Europe's right-wing and populist movements, creating across the EU a network of allies sympathetic to Russia.

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Moscow's main goal is to create new regions of instability along the EU's borders, and to split EU unity on the policy of maintaining sanctions against Russia.

A key strategic target for Russian sponsored actions is Hungary. Europe's leaders appear to be blind to what is happening, and are failing to recognise the potential threat to civilised democracy.

Viktor Orban, the Hungarian conservative, together with Italian and Czech populists, are campaigning to lift sanctions imposed against Russia for military aggression in Ukraine.

But this is only part of the unfolding hybrid war tactics being employed by Russia against the West.

Hungarian right-wing radical organisations are being funded by Russia to aggressively campaign against Nato and the EU and to spawn confrontation with Ukraine.

The Russian Special Services are actively working with organisations like the New Hungarian Guard (UJ Magyar Garda), the Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement (Hatvannegy Varmegye Ifjusagi Mazgalom), the Army of Lads (Betyarsereg) the Hungarian Self-Defense Movement (Magyar Onvedelmi Mozgalom), and the Wolves (Farkasok).

They organise military training of the organisations' members, often with the involvement of Russian troops or Russian military diplomats as instructors.

They employ activists from these bodies to organise demonstrations in favour of Russian interests, such as stirring up ethnic conflict in Zakarpattia in Ukraine.

They also draw on their membership as recruitment material for military operations, such as the Russian-led aggression in eastern Ukraine, where they take part in hostilities on the side of pro-Russian militants, with the aim of "blood-binding" them and building Slavic solidarity.

Propaganda messages are distributed through the online news portal hidfo.ru, which is the key communication resource of the pro-Russian forces in Hungary.

It publishes disinformation reports coming from Russia which are then spun across social media networks.

Russian grooming

One of the main objectives of the current disinformation campaign is to ideologically mould members of extremist organisations to believe that the Russian annexation of Crimea sets a precedent for Hungary to regain its territories, primarily Zakarpattia in Ukraine.

Russian policy in the region aims to question the existing state borders and to spark territorial conflicts with a view to creating instability.

In parallel, actions are being undertaken to promote Hungarian separatist movements in the neighbouring countries of Ukraine and Romania.

Much of the funding for such activities comes from oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin such as Konstantin Malofeev, who has business interests in Hungary.

An important element of Russia's Hungary strategy is to locate in Hungary the EU centre of the pro-Kremlin right-wing "International Movement".

For example, events organised by the Hungarian right-wing attract participation from pro-Russian extremists from Great Britain (in particular, Jim Dowson of the Knights Templar International) and Nick Griffin of the National Front.

Confirming the trend, the "Wolf" International Centre for Combat and Special Training held exercises for local activists of paramilitary organisations near Budapest in August.

The head of the Wolf Centre is a Russian national, Denis Ryauzov, who previously served in Russian special operations and is on a US Treasury sanctions list.

The Hungarian leadership, which once so actively fought against the Soviets, now advocates modern Russia's policies against the West.

Zakarpattia

But Orban is not just working to weaken unity in the EU, he is actively trying to reunite Budapest with territories that formerly belonged to Hungary, such as Zakarpattia in Ukraine, where 150,000 ethnic Hungarians make up just under 10 percent of the region's population.

The current spat between Budapest and Kyiv over the Hungarian minority in Zakarpattia began in 2017, starting at first from a disagreement on legislation on languages and education, but then spiralling into Hungarian opposition to Ukraine's meetings with Nato and the issue of threats to block Ukraine's European integration process under their Association Agreement with the EU.

Hungary has also provoked Ukrainian irritation by issuing passports to Ukrainian nationals from the Hungarian minority living in Ukraine, where dual citizenship is not allowed.

This is exactly the sort of smouldering border crisis that Moscow would like to actively foment, which could directly threaten not only the national and territorial interests of Romania and Ukraine, but also the stability of Europe's eastern flank.

The situation is becoming more tense and there is a danger that relations could deteriorate to the point where a conflict might be provoked, which could escalate and spin out of control unless the European Union intervenes now to take serious action to fix the situation.

James Wilson, is the founding director of the EU-Ukraine Business Council

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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