Russian-Ukrainian war

Orbán wants to “redefine” Hungary’s NATO membership over a fake concern

In a May radio interview, Viktor Orbán said that he wants to „redefine” Hungary’s NATO membership, claiming that the alliance will otherwise drag Hungary into a war against Russia. In reality, NATO has no mechanism by which it could force a member state into a military conflict, even by invoking Article 5. Meanwhile, Hungary is providing logistical support to the arming of Ukraine, much decried by Orbán.

On May 24, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that his country was looking to redefine its membership in NATO to ensure the country cannot be involved in operations outside of the military alliance’s territory. “Now a new term has been invented to describe the Hungarian position in NATO, it is called non-participation” – Orbán stated.

No NATO plan for Ukraine operation

Orbán is implying that Hungary should change our membership of NATO so that it does not oblige it to participate in military action that is not aimed at defending a member state against external attack.

This would include, according to Orbán, a NATO mission to defend Ukraine, a non-NATO state from the ongoing Russian invasion.

It is important to note that no leader of the alliance has talked about such a possibility. Some politicians of some member states have raised the possibility of sending non-combatant units to Ukraine on their own (i.e. not as part of a NATO mission). For example, France and Ukraine signed an agreement under which French officers would “visit” the Ukrainian army’s training centres in Ukraine. Neither NATO, nor any member state suggested any operation to actively fight the Russian armed forces.

Even if, for some reason, a NATO mission to Ukraine were actually to be set up, Orbán would have no difficulty „staying out of it”, as NATO’s founding treaty clearly states that participation of any military operation is the decision of each member state.

No automatic state of war

NATO is first and foremost a defensive alliance, and secondly a common military structure ensuring military cooperation between allies. The defensive alliance is defined in Article 5 of the NATO Treaty (and Article 6, which clarifies it): according to this Article, aggression against a NATO member state is considered aggression against all member states, and the other member states are therefore obliged to assist the attacked ally.

This however, doesn’t mean that an attack on one member state would automatically trigger a state of war in all of them. The treaty only states that allies must provide aid “in the manner it deems necessary, including the use of armed force.” Therefore, even if NATO Article 5 was triggered, a member state could even decide that no aid is „necessary” and provide none.

In Hungary, for example, declaration of a state of war or the use of military force must be decided by the Parliament and the government respectively.

NATO’s Article 5 was only used once in history, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In response, NATO organized operations wherein member states undertook air an naval patrols to deter possible terrorists. No shots were fired during these operations.

By contrast, the US invasion of Afghanistan was not a NATO operation, but one undertaken by the United States and a few allies. As an allience, NATO only got involved in Afghanistan when  they took over the leadership of the international peacekeeping force, ISAF.

NATO’s response to Russian aggression

NATO’s Article 4 can be seen as a lighter version of Article 5. Member states may invoke this article if they fear that their security or sovereignity may be at risk. In such cases, NATO conveys a council and decide on what steps to take.

Article 4 was last invoked after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. With the unanimous support of all states (including Hungary),

NATO responded by deploying elements of the NATO Response Force, and significant air and naval assets in countries bordering Ukraine and Russia,

and created four additional multinational battle groups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.

In Hungary, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó announced that an international force would be stationed in Hungary, with American, Turkish, Croatian, Montenegrin and Italian troops in addition to the Hungarian Defence Forces.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Hungary has also participated, and is participating in air patrols to secure the airspace of the Baltic countries. In the summer of 2022, the Hungarian government’s website announced that the Hungarian Defence Forces would provide air protection for the Baltic airspace for four month – ommitting that these patrols are done to deter  Russian aggression.

Just like all NATO operations, Hungary’s participation in the Baltic patrols, and the hosting of the international corps is a voluntary undertaking by the Hungarian state, not something NATO „forced” on the country.

Only non-lethal aid by NATO

As an allience, NATO has not provided lethal aid to Ukraine. The allience itself does not have a standing army or military industry, as it is just a structure to help coordinate national armed forces, who may temporarily fight under the NATO banner.

Since 2014, NATO did provide some non-lethal equipment to the Ukrainian army through the Comprehensive Assistance Package,

this includes winter clothes, food, medical equipment and batteries.

The program was enhanced in 2022, again with unianimous support of the member states. This package however does not compare to the military assistance member states are providing to Ukraine – but this is done in a bilateral basis, not through NATO.

When NATO intervenes

The Alliance’s record so far suggests that the chances of a NATO mission to Ukraine are close to zero as long as the active war against Russia continues. As an alliance, the only times NATO took part in an armed conflict was when the operation was sanctioned by the UN security council. This was the case during the NATO intervention in the Yugoslav wars and the Libyan civil war of 2011.

Russia is a member of the Security Council, which means that these interventions were also aprroved by Russia.

Obviously, Russia would not approve an intervention against itself, making a UN-backed operation in Ukraine impossible.

In the Libyan and the Yugoslav wars, NATO conducted air strikes and enforced a no-fly zone. They did not deploy ground troops – to date, ground troops were only deployed under the NATO banner in peacekeeping operations, such as in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Although these missions were far from being peaceful and resulted in casualties (seven Hungarian soldiers also died during service in Afghanistan), there is a huge difference between NATO troops being stationed in an occupied country fighting insurgents and NATO intervening in a war against a nuclear power.

The group really directing arms deliveries to Ukraine

As previously stated, it is not NATO, but individual states that send weapons to Ukraine. While it is true that such deliveries require international cooperation, instead of NATO, another group is responsible for directing arms shipments.

They are the Ukraine Defence Contact Group, also known as the Ramstein Group, which was specifically created in 2022 to coordinate military aid to Ukraine.

Despite Orbán and his ministrers constantly denouncing weapons shipments to Ukraine, Hungary has been a member of the Ramstein Group since its foundation. The Hungarian NATO membership does not explain the presence of Hungarian military officials at the Group’s meetings, since the group is not part of NATO, and it involves many non-NATO countries.

Last year, we wrote in detail about the Ramstein Group’s meetings. At the time, the Hungarian delegation included an air force colonel, Hungary’s NATO ambassador and the minister of Defense. Despite this illustrious delegation, the government made no mention about their activities or the purpose of their presence at the meeting.

Similarly, in the summer of 2022, the then Chief of Staff of the Hungarian Defence Forces, Romulus Ruszin-Szendi, held talks with the Ukrainian General Staff. Government media was completely silent on the meeting, which was only made public because the Ukrainian side posted about it on social media.

Logistical support

Evidence suggests that Hungary is providing some kind of logistical support for arms shipments to Ukraine. Most of the arms shipments enter Ukraine via an airport in south-eastern Poland, Rzeszów-Jasionka airport. Massive military cargo planes land daily on the airport, including the C-17s of the Heavy Air Regiment (SAC), that fly under the Hungarian banner, operated by hungarian crews.

SAC is an international military transport consortium independent of NATO, operating three C-17s based at the Pápa airport.

SAC has been involved from the beginning in the transport of weapons to Ukraine.

For example, photos of a Hungarian-registered C-17 and its cargo of German anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles sent to Ukraine have appeared in the Hungarian media.

Flight records published on Radarbox and suggest that SAC planes also carried Ukraine-bound weapons from Sweden, using the Pápa airport as a base. Apart from the SAC planse, Ukraine’s own commercial cargo companies, such as Antonov Airlines also carry weapons to Ukraine. In may, one Ukrainian Antonov repeatedly landed in Pápa while transporting good between Rzeszów and Leipzig.

Atlaszo  also previously published evidence that French helicopters given to the Ukrainian Border Guard also stopped in a Hungarian airport before they reached there destination. It is also possible that arms shipments destined for Ukraine have passed through Hungary by land. In January last year. A day after Slovenia annonced a new aid package to Ukraine, a convoy of what looked like Valuk IFVs – the armored vehicles promised by Slovenia to Ukraine – was spotted on a highway in Hungary.

Military aid is also linked to the expansion of the Hungarian military industry, In December, the CEO of Rheinmetall stated in an interview that Lynx IFVs built in the new Hungarian plants are to be given to Ukraine.

Written and translated by Zalán Zubor, the Hungarian version of this story is here.