Putin Dealt Double Blow as Two of His Closest Allies Turn on Him

Turkey and Hungary, whose leaders had been among the few in Europe to keep an open door to Moscow after the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, seem to be starting to turn their backs on Russia.

This month, the Turkish government, which mediated peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow last year, abruptly halted the transit of sanctioned goods to Russia, after having received several warnings from the European Union and the United States about these products helping Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.

This week, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced his country will reassess its relationship with Russia. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February and the following sanctions imposed by the EU, Orbán has kept an ambivalent stance towards Moscow.

Orbán and his government were slow to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and repeatedly opposed the EU sanctions against Moscow and financial aid to Kyiv. As an energy crisis unfolded across Europe last year, Orbán consistently blamed higher costs on the sanctions imposed on Russia, calling for the EU to put an end to the measures.

Last month, Politico reported that Orbán told a group of foreign conservative figures that time was on Russia’s side in the war in Ukraine, calling the war-torn country “the land of nobody” and openly questioning its sovereignty.

But the latest apparent change of direction for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungary’s Orbán shows that, as the war drags on for longer than anyone would have expected at its start, even Putin’s closest allies in Europe are being forced to reconsider what’s more convenient, strategically, for their countries.

While Turkey kept a good balance last year between keeping its ties with Russia without completely angering Europe and the U.S., this position now seems increasingly untenable. Turkey’s defiant resistance to the punitive measures imposed by the U.S. and the EU on Russia threatened to cost the country’s companies and banks to be punished for contravening sanctions, as Brian Nelson, the U.S. Treasury Department’s top sanctions official, made clear during meetings in Ankara and Istanbul last month.

Orbán too has until now played both sides, avoiding being straight-out anti-Ukrainian to keep enjoying the benefits of its EU and NATO membership while refusing to stop developing its ties with Moscow and abandoning its Russia-friendly stance.

But Orbán, talking about the need to reassess Hungary’s relationship with Russia during an economic forum in Budapest on Thursday, didn’t suggest cutting ties with Moscow completely.

“I understand the need to rebuild Russian-European relations after the war, but it’s far from realistic,” Orbán said. “That is why Hungary’s foreign and economic policy must carefully reflect on the type of relationship we can establish and maintain with Russia in the next 10-15 years.”

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