The Russian military invasion of Ukraine has exposed the weaknesses of the Visegrad cooperation as a regional forum of like-minded governments. The silence of the V4 Group proves that it has not overcome the deepening dissensus between the ostensibly pro-Russian Hungarian government and the other V4 countries increasingly fearful of Russia’s neo-imperialist stance.
The Russian aggression in Ukraine has constituted a shocking use of force against a sovereign European state and a flagrant violation of international law. Outrage and condemnation of Russia’s invasion have been voiced worldwide. Against the backdrop of the near-universal condemnation of Russia’s war against Ukraine and demands for a complete withdrawal of all Russian military forces from its territory, the Visegrad Group (V4) has remained conspicuously silent. This commentary aims to explain the reasons behind the V4’s abstaining from the collective reaction to the Russian aggression.
The Visegrad Cooperation: Difficult Beginnings
The Visegrad Group was established in February 1991 as a tri-partite alliance of three Central Eastern European countries: Poland, Hungary and what was then Czechoslovakia; which were grappling with the hardships of the post-communist transformation and wanted to see a ‘return to Europe’ for their respective states. That meant a close cooperation in the development of their relations with the European Communities and a simultaneous application for the association status and coordination of their endeavours to disentangle from the Eastern bloc and integrate with NATO.
From the very beginning the Visegrad Group was marked by divergent national priorities, tensions over ethnic minorities, and internal divisions, sometimes provoked by the personal ambitions of the leaders of the member countries. The internal conflict between the Czech and Slovak governments brought about the dissolution of the Czecho-Slovak Federation in 1993 and the consequent transformation of the ‘Visegrad Triangle’ into the ‘Visegrad Four’ (V4). Concurrently, tensions between Slovakia and the Czech Republic and between Slovakia and Hungary were accompanied by internal troubles with the consolidation of a liberal democratic regime. This applied particularly to Slovakia, where a right-wing coalition led by Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar drifted away from a democratic trajectory and towards authoritarian patterns accompanied by violations of human rights.
The prospects for membership of NATO and the EU, which materialised in 1996, motivated the governments of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to revitalise the Visegrad cooperation and act as a bloc during the talks on membership with EU and NATO officials. The determination of the Clinton administration to overcome Russia’s resistance and convince all NATO member states of the historical significance of the Alliance’s eastward expansion was decisive for the fulfilment of the strategic security objectives of the V4. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined the ranks of the NATO alliance in 1999. Slovakia buried her chances for accession due to the democratic backsliding and anti-Western rhetoric of nationalist parties. However, at the time of NATO’s enlargement the Mečiar government was ousted from power and replaced by a pro-Western centre-right coalition. It quickly rebuilt the relations with the Western institutions and revived its activities in the Visegrad Group. Thanks to that, V4 carried out successful membership negotiations with the EU which finally resulted in the Eastern enlargement in 2004. In the same year Slovakia entered NATO, closing the ‘security gap’ with her V4 neighbours. This crowned the many-years-long effort to ‘return to Europe’ and ‘join the Euro-Atlantic security community’.
The ‘Illiberal Swerve’ and the Split Over Russia
As full members of NATO and the EU, the V4 countries were interested in pursuing jointly their economic and security interests, irrespective of some minor internal frictions. In May 2012, the V4 Defence Ministers announced the formation of a EU Battlegroup (BG) by 2016 as a specific contribution to further enhancing the EU’s rapid reaction capacities. It was also expected that the creation of a V4BG would contribute to the modernisation of the armed forces, better and systematic defence planning, joint exercises, and joint procurement and maintenance of military equipment among the V4 armed forces.
In response to the 2014 Russian military intervention in Ukraine, an agreement was signed in March 2014 on a joint military Battlegroup within the European Union. However, the developments in Ukraine provoked deep divisions within the V4. The Polish and Czech governments expressed support for the pro-European demonstrations and opposed the Russian interference in the ‘Maidan revolution’. Poland was exceptionally active in backing the new Ukrainian authorities and condemning Russia’s armed intrusion in the east of the country. At the same time, Hungary followed its ‘Eastern Opening’ path consisting in the intense development of economic, energy-related, and political ties with Russia. In response to the EU sanctions imposed on Russia in the aftermath of the 2014 aggression, Hungary became a vocal critic of sanctions. Moreover, immediately after the annexation of Crimea Prime Minister Victor Orbán demanded autonomy for the Hungarian minority in Ukrainian Transcarpathia and threatened to block Ukraine’s efforts at integration with the EU and NATO. He declared that Hungary is ‘not interested in being dragged into an anti-Russian international coalition for the sake of Ukraine’, although he unceremoniously concluded that it was in Hungary’s interest that there should always be ‘something’ (valami) between Russia and Hungary - ‘it can also be called Ukraine’. It is not only Orban who has been a staunch critic of sanctions on Russia. Czech President Milos Zeman and Slovak PM Robert Fico were also against them. The V4 was only able to agree on a low common denominator resulting from the EU’s common position: the condemnation of Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine and non-recognition of the annexation of Crimea.
The deadlock in the V4 cooperation in security and defence did not last long. Hungary, one of the champions of ‘illiberal democracy’, was joined by the populist Slovak government of PM Robert Fico and the Polish national-conservative coalition led by Jarosław Kaczyński. The Czech Republic followed suit with a populist and Euro-sceptic coalition of PM Bohuslav Sobotka and nationalist (and clearly pro-Russian) president Milos Zeman. During the war in eastern Ukraine Viktor Orban proclaimed the concept of ‘illiberal’ democracy and praised Russia as one of its most successful examples.
The transformation of the Visegrad Group into a coalition of nationalist, populist and increasingly Euro-sceptic governments was accelerated by the migration crisis in 2015-2016. The V4 stood firmly against reception and relocation of international refugees, unleashing an anti-immigrant campaign and decrying the inflow of refugees. They managed to finalise the formation of a Visegrad Battlegroup composed of more than 3,900 soldiers, forming an alliance protecting Hungary and Poland, which were defying the values and principles of European integration with regard to the rule of law and non-compliance with EU law.
Russia’s Aggression and the Disappearance of the V4
The rationale behind the Visegrad Group prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine was based on a close cooperation in matters which either caused tensions or led to an open collision with the EU and the majority of its member states. These were the rule of law, migration, environment, climate policy, and energy transition. They also jointly examined prospects for the EU’s enlargement. Importantly, they focused on the Western Balkans. Ukraine was not mentioned at all. They ostensibly emphasised the relevance of the V4 EU BG for regional security cooperation. On 13 December 2021, the Prime Ministers of the V4 countries met in Budapest to discuss, among other topics, security and defence. They ‘reconfirmed their longstanding position that the security and prosperity of the Western Balkans and the Eastern Partnership countries are key strategic interests for the V4 countries and the EU as a whole. In this context, they reiterate their full support to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.’
Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine of February 2022 the Orban government was reluctant to support a decisive reaction of the EU in the form of sanctions and other restrictive measures. Facing the overwhelming majority of EU and NATO member states in favour of punishing Russia and assisting Ukraine, Orban desisted from questioning the adopted measures yet kept a low profile regarding the dramatic developments across Hungary’s eastern border. The Hungarian government expressed doubts over the effectiveness of international sanctions, refused to deliver military assistance to Ukraine, and prohibited the use of Hungarian territory for the transfer of military aid. It also declined to break ties with Russian companies and cancel Russian investment plans. The state-owned media repeatedly spread Russia-friendly propaganda. Under criticism from many European state and non-state actors, the Hungarian authorities emphasised the humanitarian assistance they provided mostly to incoming refugees. However, this has not covered the inaction of the Orban government regarding opposition to the Russian aggression. Orban returned to an old method of nationalist mobilisation around national interests, with security and stability at the fore. Regarding the ban on arms shipments to Ukraine, Orban said: ‘Those weapons might be used against Hungarian people; because there are Hungarians living in Transcarpathia, and soldiers are also being conscripted from there.’ Even more strikingly, Orban spoke about ‘the second Russian–Ukrainian war’, hesitating to make any reference to Russia’s aggression in violation of international law, and declared that ‘Hungary must stay out of this war’.
Hungary’s posture has been in clear contrast to the positions and actions taken by the other V4 countries, with Poland at the forefront of humanitarian efforts, logistic and military support, and the diplomatic efforts to strengthen the Eastern flank through NATO’s active deterrence. Orban’s opinions were embarrassing even for his faithful friends in the Polish government led by the Law and Justice party. In an interview for the Mandiner weekly, Orban said: ‘Poles want to push the border of the Western world to the border of the Russian world. [...] That is why they vehemently support Ukraine's NATO membership. The essence of Hungarian tactical thinking, on the other hand, is to have a sufficiently wide and deep area between the Russians and Hungary.’ Asked about an impact of ‘the Russian-Ukrainian war’ on V4 cooperation, he acknowledged that this cooperation ‘has been separated from military policy issues because we knew there was a difference of opinions.’
For the time being, V4 has been paralysed by the Orban government’s submission to Russia. Some prospects for a resurrection of the V4 cooperation vis-a-vis Russia’s military aggression towards Ukraine (and not a ‘Russian-Ukrainian war’) still remain, however. The situation in Ukraine was one of the topics addressed at the V4 and UK summit meeting in London on the 8th of March. The Joint Statement of Prime Ministers of the V4 and the UK did not go beyond the positions agreed on the EU and NATO levels. It avoided any reference to a military assistance to Ukraine. Instead, it emphasised the support to refugees. This means that the V4 as a regional cooperation forum can speak with one voice only about secondary matters eschewing problems which might irritate the ‘man in the bunker’. Therefore, the Visegrad Group is not willing to actively oppose Russia’s aggressive neo-imperialist policy threatening Europe and destroying international order.
The vanishing V4
The Visegrad Group has never played a significant role in the turbulent transformation of post-Cold-War Europe. Its initially enthusiastic pro-Western attitude was soon diluted by quarrels, divergent interests and selfish actions. The prospects of NATO and EU memberships forced the V4 countries to overcome points of friction and old grudges. However, the V4’s full membership of the Western community has not been consolidated as an influential actor, capable of pursuing effectively common goals. The nationalist-populist turn in the 2010s and the democratic backsliding of Hungary and Poland improved the V4’s cohesion, while leading to its marginalisation in the Euro-Atlantic community. As Alaksei Kazharski wrote, ‘Fifteen years into EU membership, the V4 has lost its status as a pro-Western, avant-garde paragon of transition’.
The Russian invasion of the Ukraine turns out to be a unique opportunity for the Visegrad Group to demonstrate its commitment to the universal principles of peace, non-aggression and humanitarian assistance for victims of war. This may help those countries to regain their European face and make a second ‘return to Europe’ possible. On the other hand, Orban’s provocative declarations and the outrageous propaganda of the Hungarian state-controlled media may deliver a nasty blow to the V4 cooperation and doom the Group to international marginalisation.
Artur Gruszczak is a professor of social sciences, Chair of National Security at the Faculty of International and Political Studies, Jagiellonian University in Krakow. He is a Faculty Member of the European Online Academy, Centre International de Formation Européenne in Nice. His principal interests and research areas include: European security; intelligence cooperation; transformation of warfare; security protocolarization: and violence in international relations.