Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke publicly about elements of the growing crisis in Europe for the first time in weeks. Using a press conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban as a soap box, Putin accused the United States and NATO of using Ukraine as a tool to contain Russia, as well as deliberately ignoring its security concerns. “NATO refers to the right of countries to choose freely, but you cannot strengthen someone’s security at the expense of others,” Putin remarked, and in the process explained in simple terms the core of Russia’s security dilemma. He then repeated his nation’s primary demand that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO.
On this first day of February, the procession of diplomats and European leaders looking to contribute their power and influence towards a peaceful resolution of the crisis continues through Ukraine. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrived in Ukraine today. At a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Johnson advised Putin to ‘step back’ from what could be a military disaster for Russia and the world. He also warned that Britain will apply significant sanctions to Russia “the moment the first Russian toecap crosses further into Ukrainian territory.”
With the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics set for this coming Friday, the probability of Putin beginning a major military effort this week is low. As the games go on, Russia will use the next two weeks to build its case for military action and make the final preparations for the military operations set to come. Russia would be smart not to initiate hostilities against Ukraine during the Olympics and considering that Putin is obviously playing the long game here, such a move is not expected. Putin was in a similar position back in February of 2014. A Euromaidan raged in Ukraine, the Winter Olympics that year were going on in Sochi, on the Black Sea. As host of the games, Russia and Putin had to sit there and watch powerless as a friendly government fell. Yet the moment the games ended, Putin took action.
Circumstances today are considerably different, but the Russian leader won’t risk the diplomatic and public relations wrath that would almost definitely come from an attack on Ukraine during the Olympic games.
Today in Budapest the National Assembly, which is Hungary’s parliamentary body, approved the government’s request for the power to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time. The new legislation gives extraordinary powers to Prime Minister Viktor Orban, effectively placing him in sole command of Hungary with absolutely no oversight. The move was made to give the government all of the necessary tools to effectively combat COVID-19. Many nations across Europe and other parts of the world have allowed their governments to assume emergency powers in the pandemic, but none have taken a step as drastic as Hungary has. The National Assembly has essentially handed Orban the keys to the kingdom without any assurances he will give them back when the pandemic comes to an end.
The new legislation extends the present state of emergency now in effect. It lays the foundation for jail terms of up to five years on individuals, and organizations hindering measures to curb the spread of the virus or spreading false information that could upset people or hinder the fight against the virus. Human Rights groups, and opposition parties inside Hungary fear Orban will use this to neutralize domestic journalists and media outlets opposing the Orban government.
The legislation also gives Orban the power to bypass parliament when making decisions, eliminating the body’s ability to act as a check on possible abuses of power Orban. The Constitutional Court will retain the power to review government actions, however, the court is filled with justices loyal to Orban, so its ability to provide objective oversight is questionable.
Even though Orban and his allies have promised the emergency measures are temporary and will pose no threat to democracy in Hungary, his opponents inside of the country, and across Europe aren’t so sure. The European Union has not responded to events in Hungary today, and given the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, it could be some time before that happens.
On a final note, what has taken place in Hungary is a textbook example of what was discussed in the previous blog post. Actions taken during the pandemic will certainly produce far reaching consequences once things return to normal, whether leaders, and citizens realize it or not.
The European Union is preparing a new naval and air mission off the Libyan coast to support the enforcement of a UN arms embargo. An agreement in principle was reached by member governments in Brussels on Monday. There was initial objections voiced by Austria, Italy and Hungary over the possibility that the operation could end up attracting migrants and enabling a greater number of them to reach Europe. The EU foreign policy head Josep Borrell compromised with the promise that the ships would be withdrawn if they start to encourage migrants to make the dangerous crossing from North Africa to Europe.
Weapons have been pouring into Libya despite a UN arms embargo being in place. With no methods of enforcement supporting it, the embargo has been ridiculed, and disregard. Even UN deputy special envoy for Libya, Stephanie Williams described the arms embargo as a joke over the weekend. With the EU stepping in, there is a chance of enforcing the embargo more stringently in the coming months.
The new mission will be known as Operation EU Active Surveillance. It will replace Operation Sophia which was set up in 2015 to combat human-trafficking, and prevent heavy losses of life at sea during the height of the European Migration Crisis. Sophia was suspended in March of 2019 when the Italian government threatened to veto the entire operation. The new mission will take place mostly in the Eastern Mediterranean where the arms smuggling routes are located. This is a considerable distance away from the routes most migrants have taken on their journeys north to Europe.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will arrive in Hungary on Monday at a time when the United States is becoming more concerned with Hungarian leader Viktor Orban’s dismantling of democratic institutions, and his increasingly close ties with Russia. Despite Orban’s praise for President Trump, and recent efforts to mend US-Hungary relations, Washington is growing annoyed. The Trump administration has been openly willing to work with Orban, but recent actions by Hungary indicate Orban might not be as open to working with the US.
Brushing US concerns aside, Orban continued to pressure Central European University until the school, which is a US institution, was forced to move from Budapest to Vienna. The government also denied a request from Washington to extradite two Russian arms traffickers to the United States and instead sent them back to Russia. Ukraine has also turned out to be a sore spot. Hungary has opposed NATO discussions with the Kiev government, pointing to Ukraine’s allegedly unfair treatment of that nation’s ethnic Hungarian minority.
Growing Russian and Chinese influence in Hungary is a concern Pompeo will address. Orban supports the TurkStream gas pipeline project, an endeavor backed by Moscow. Russia has also financed expansion and new construction at the Paks nuclear power plant. The Hungarian government is also allowing Huawei to develop the nation’s 5G mobile network. The Chinese telecom company is under heavy suspicion in a number of Western nations, and is at the center of a tense US-China standoff.
Following his stop in Hungary, Pompeo will head to Poland for a two-day conference on the Middle East. Vice President Mike Pence is also expected to attend. The upcoming conference will be discussed more in the next few days.
The dispute between the European Union and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) over that nation’s respect for the democratic process, and respecting EU values is heating up once again. On Wednesday, new legislation revising the retirement age for Poland’s Supreme Court judges went into effect. The new retirement age has been set at 65, requiring roughly one-third of the current sitting judges to retire. Critics and opponents of the new law have labeled it a purge of the courts. The EU considers the action an attempt by the Polish government to control the judiciary. Warsaw’s view of the legislation is quite different. It sees the law as a necessary move to rid the judiciary of communist-era practices, and thinking.
On Monday, the EU began a new infringement procedure against Poland, claiming the new law undermines judicial independence in the nation. This is not the first action taken by the Union concerning Poland’s judicial reforms either. A year ago, a previous infringement procedure was launched as a result of Polish government reforms to lower court system. An Article 7 (1) procedure is also presently underway, which could theoretically lead to Poland’s expulsion from the EU.
The Poland-EU dispute is only part of a larger standoff between the EU and many of its Eastern European members. The cultural divide on the continent between east and west has become more evident lately. For nations like Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland, that lived under communist control for decades, recent EU efforts to infringe on their internal politics, and redistribute migrants to their nations harken back to the days before the end of the Cold War. Memories of that time period continue to influence Eastern Europe immeasurably, even more so now with the Russian threat again emerging to the east. European Union punitive measures aimed at bringing Eastern Europe more in line with Brussels is sparking staunch resistance. Given the other issues currently facing the EU, Brussels has to walk softly around the Polish matter for the time being, or risk transforming Eastern Europe into a powder keg that could bring about the eventual breakup of the European Union.