One does not need to be a master strategist to realise that due to the country’s geographic position, Sweden’s accession to NATO would significantly strengthen the alliance in the entire Baltic Sea region, Dr András Rácz writes.
On 6 October, Euronews published an op-ed by Dr Gladden Pappin, president of the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs, about why Sweden may not join NATO.
Some of Dr Pappin’s arguments are indeed worth attention, though certainly not endorsement, while others, unfortunately, require factual corrections.
For one, Russia definitely is a threat.
Dr Pappin, known more as a political philosopher than a security expert, argues that there is not much urgency to get Sweden into the alliance.
According to him, with its forces bogged down in Ukraine, Russia is not going to launch incursions into NATO territory anytime soon and "claims about Russia’s imperial ambitions seem hardly credible."
This assessment is indeed surprising taking into account that Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine is raging in the direct neighbourhood of Hungary, while also claiming the lives of ethnic Hungarian soldiers in the Ukrainian army.
What makes Dr Pappin’s line particularly noteworthy is that it directly contradicts the newest assessment of NATO.
According to the final communique of the Vilnius Summit, released on 11 July, "the Russian Federation is the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area."
In other words, while all members of the alliance agreed in Vilnius that Russia is the most important threat NATO needs to face, for some reason Dr Pappin tried to convince his readers about the opposite.
By doing so, he implicitly contradicted even the Hungarian government, which also approved the Vilnius summit communique.
Sweden would make NATO considerably stronger
Another surprising element of Dr Pappin’s article is that according to him, “Sweden’s military contribution to NATO would be rather slender.”
However, the opposite is true, even according to Hungarian officials. Only a few days after his opinion article, Hungary’s Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Gábor Böröndi gave an interview in which he explicitly stated that the Swedish armed forces are suitably ready for NATO accession, adding that that the question of Sweden’s accession is primarily a political matter.
General Böröndi is certainly right. According to The Military Balance 2023, Sweden’s defence budget was slightly above $8 billion (€7.5bn) in 2022, thus nearly 2,5 times bigger than Hungary’s $2,99bn (€2.8bn).
Sweden has a small, but well-trained, very well-equipped armed force configured for territorial defence. Just to give one example: the country’s air force possesses nearly a hundred JAS-39 Gripen fighters.
Somewhat ironically, the sole jet fighter operated by the Hungarian Air Force happens to be the same Gripen: approximately a dozen of them were leased from Sweden. Budapest is in the process of extending the lease contract that is about the expire in 2026.
A key element of Dr Pappin’s argument for the delayed accession ratification is that there is a deficit of trust in Budapest vis-à-vis Stockholm, meaning that Sweden shall not join until disagreements are resolved.
However, had there been a real loss of trust, it is highly unlikely that Hungary would strive to maintain its military technological dependence on Sweden by extending the Gripen lease contract.
Putting cold steel aside, one does not need to be a master strategist to realise that due to the country’s geographic position, Sweden’s accession to NATO would significantly strengthen the alliance in the entire Baltic Sea region.
Sweden’s membership would decisively help improve the collective defence provided to our Finnish, Polish and Baltic allies on all levels, ranging from strategic planning to military logistics.
Concerted ambiguity in Hungary’s communication
Dr Pappin’s article appears to be part of a wider Hungarian communication manoeuvre aimed at creating ambiguity about Budapest's position on Sweden’s accession, thus probably buying it time.
The Hungarian Institute of International Affairs, presided by him, is an integral part of the Hungarian government. The HIIA is directly subordinated to the Office of the Prime Minister, and so is Dr Pappin.
Generally speaking, no employee of any government would be allowed to publish opinion pieces on the policies of the given government without prior coordination and approval.
Hence, the article of Dr Pappin is certainly not independent of the official policy of the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Interestingly enough, in terms of content, the article appears to contradict the official Hungarian explanations of why Sweden’s accession has not yet been ratified.
Earlier, the government claimed that it already endorsed and supported Sweden in joining NATO; it is only the parliament that is unwilling to ratify the accession.
However, this article casts some doubt on the credibility of this argument: had the Hungarian government been really in favour of Stockholm’s accession, no government officials would have published critical articles about Sweden's readiness.
The Hungarian parliament, which is officially delaying the ratification of Sweden’s NATO accession, is dominated by the constitutional majority of the ruling coalition led by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party.
Their parliamentary supermajority has been serving the government with impeccable obedience since 2010: in the Hungarian parliament, it is fairly normal that core numbers of the budget get modified literally overnight or that the parliament amends the constitution in a few days’ time, without any meaningful debate.
This parliament is unlikely to suddenly stand up against the government, particularly in a question of such strategic importance as the expansion of NATO.
Still, on the very same day when Dr Pappin’s article came out, an interview came out with Zsolt Németh, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Hungarian parliament, a veteran Fidesz politician and known foreign policy expert.
Németh, who is as independent of the government as the rest of his parliamentary fraction, argued that Hungary would certainly support Sweden’s accession and the alliance would be stronger with Stockholm joining.
In other words, two Hungarian officials voiced their opinions directly contradicting each other and did so exactly at the same time. The interview of General Böröndi may well be part of the same communication effort.
While discussing in detail why Sweden is supposedly not ready for NATO, Dr Pappin elegantly avoids even mentioning a key question: who does the Hungarian policy line actually benefit?
Németh was more open in his interview: he admitted that Hungary closely coordinates with Turkey on when the Swedish accession should be ratified.
Turkey is certainly benefiting from the Hungarian policy, as Ankara does not need to be alone in delaying Sweden’s accession.
Turkey has been conducting a tough, but entirely rational, calculated policy: it has set a number of demands both vis-à-vis Sweden and the US. Once Ankara’s requests can be agreed upon, Turkey is highly likely to approve Sweden’s accession.
Meanwhile, there are simply no demands from the Hungarian side. Unlike Ankara, Budapest is not asking for anything at all from Stockholm, focusing solely on making critical remarks.
This renders it unclear what Hungary would actually gain from delaying Sweden’s accession. It is at least questionable whether paying lip service to Ankara would be worth the damage inflicted upon the credibility of Budapest as a NATO ally.
Meanwhile, Russia is applauding the delay
Meanwhile, there is another player that certainly does not mind the delayed Swedish NATO accession: Russia.
Moscow has long been opposed to any enlargement of NATO. From the Kremlin’s perspective, Sweden’s NATO membership would mean that the Baltic Sea became “Lake NATO”, limiting the power of Russia’s Baltic Fleet, as well as of the other assets deployed to Kaliningrad.
This forces Moscow to adjust its entire military posture in the Baltic Sea region. This is already happening, as Russia is in the process of recreating the old Leningrad Military District.
As the process is at least cumbersome, Moscow certainly applauds the extra time granted by the delayed Swedish NATO accession. And from this perspective, Hungary is serving not only Turkish but also Russian interests.
Dr András Rácz is a Senior Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).
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