Yuri Kochetkov/Pool/AP/File
Russian President Vladimir Putin (r.) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban meet in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, in January 2014. Mr. Putin travels to Budapest, Hungary, today to meet Mr. Orban in an effort to play on divided opinion in Europe over the efficacy of sanctions against Russia.

Putin takes 'Russia still has friends' tour to Hungary

The Russian president's visit to Hungary is part of a greater diplomatic offensive to prove he is not boxed in by sanctions. The trip's political significance for Moscow far outweighs the projected deals with Prime Minister Orban.

Vladimir Putin is in Budapest today to sign a raft of economic deals and dialogue with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. But while it's his first state visit to a European Union capital since the Ukraine crisis began a year ago, it's not just diplomacy as usual.

One day after the EU again ramped up sanctions on Russia, Mr. Putin's implicit message is clear: that despite all Western efforts to ostracize him, he still has friends in the heart of Europe.

Russia may not be reverting to the old Bolshevik playbook of driving wedges between capitalist rivals, but it seems to be adapting a few pages from it. The aim is to shatter Western-imposed isolation by reaching out to new friends, reanimating old alliances, and fanning the embers of dissension within the Western camp.

Over the past year, Putin has traveled the globe to boost Russia's relationship with China and breathe new life into an old partnership with India. He has confused European energy policy by canceling a major pipeline and striking a new gas deal with Turkey, and invited Egypt to join the new Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union. He even made sure that when US diplomats arrived in Cuba to restore diplomatic relations after a half-century hiatus, a huge Russian spy ship was moored in Havana harbor to remind them that Cuba hasn't been completely alone all these years.

Putin's visit to Hungary is of a piece with that diplomatic offensive, experts say, and its political significance for Moscow far outweighs the projected deals over natural gas as well as a 10-billion-euro expansion of Hungary's Soviet-built nuclear power plant.

"In the present atmosphere, it's very important for Russia to demonstrate that attempts to isolate us are not working," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal.

Some former Soviet bloc countries such as Poland and the Baltic states have been strongly in favor of squeezing Russia harder. Others, like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, have gone along with EU sanctions but also expressed discontent with them. The new far-left government of another EU member, Greece, threatened to derail efforts to turn up the sanctions heat on Russia last month.

"Putin's visit has much to do with lobbying against sanctions, and he's focusing energy on those countries that have been the least enthusiastic in their support," of punishing Russia, says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.

"I doubt that it will be possible to split the EU – if that is Putin's intent – but Russia will play all the cards it has," he says.

Strains in Hungary

Hungary, which is 70 percent dependent on Russian gas delivered through Ukraine, is one of several southern European countries that were blindsided by Putin's December decision to cancel the $45 billion South Stream pipeline, which would have bypassed Ukraine to deliver Russian gas to the heart of Europe. In an interview with Hungary Today, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said the uncertainty of future gas deliveries make it imperative for Budapest to consult with Moscow. He also complained that Hungary has suffered badly from the sanctions standoff with Russia, especially Moscow's tit-for-tat ban on EU food products.

Prime Minister Orban, ironically a former anti-Soviet activist, has made waves in Europe for allegedly  trying to install a Putinesque "illiberal democracy" in Hungary.

But he has also argued that European stability is being undermined by the new confrontation with Russia. Hungarian national interests, he says, require that Europe pay less attention to what the US wants and make greater efforts to reconcile the continent's two largest powers, Germany and Russia.

"Hungary needs to have a more pronounced, correct, and balanced relationship with Russia and that this relationship be sustained. This is why I invited President Putin to Hungary," Orban told Hungarian HirTV last week.

Putin would welcome such a development. But the idea that the Russian president can singlehandedly wrench the EU apart is "greatly overdone," says Mr. Lukyanov, who notes that Hungary is anchored in the union and in NATO.

Rather, Europe's susceptibility to Russian diplomacy is firmly within the EU's own control, Lukyanov argues. "The root of this is European insecurity, of their own fears of being split, that makes them imagine sophisticated Russian games. Without doubt Putin is doing this, to the best of his ability. But that's diplomacy for you. Any success he enjoys will be due to Europe's weaknesses, and not particularly Russia's strengths."

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