Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine has made the West – in this context, NATO and the European Union – more united than it has been in a long time. Unfortunately, that cohesion is now under threat, as the Russian invasion turns into a crushing war of attrition. To deter Putin from escalating and prevent him from winning, Western leaders must focus on the two weakest links in their alliance: Turkey and Hungary.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey – a member of NATO but not the EU – has said he will block Sweden and Finland from joining the transatlantic alliance unless he receives a series of independent concessions. If he continued, not only would he make both countries more vulnerable to Russian aggression, but he would also make NATO weaker than it should be in the defense of its Baltic members. For free, Erdogan is also increasing tensions with Greece, another NATO ally.
Then there is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. For weeks, he has been brandishing a sanctions package that embargoes Russian oil. Last week, EU leaders thought they had finally reached a compromise: only Russian oil delivered by ship would be banned, while oil arriving by pipeline would not. This would give landlocked Hungary, as well as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, more time to adapt their energy infrastructure.
In a shocking breach of decorum, Orban then reneged on even that compromise. Bizarrely, he also insisted that Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church – a staunch supporter of Putin and the war – should not be on the new sanctions list. The EU also gave in to this demand to get the package adopted. The whole ordeal was an embarrassment and a rare reason for Putin to be optimistic. In every possible way, Orban signals that he is not entirely behind the West’s joint effort to support Ukraine and undermine Russia – in fact, that he is not a reliable ally.
So what can be done? A fundamental design flaw shared by the EU and NATO is that neither has a mechanism to expel errant members. This means both will have to get creative to subdue the rogue rulers.
In Erdogan’s case, accessing blackmail should not be an option. The United States is expected to announce that future arms sales to Turkey will be halted until they rejoin the new memberships. NATO should threaten to suspend Turkish participation in military planning and exercises. If the situation escalates, revising the alliance rules to allow evictions should be on the table.
As for Orban, the EU will have to take a similar hard line. In 2018, the bloc triggered Article 7 of its treaty against Hungary in a censure of its subversion of democratic institutions, launching a process that could in theory strip Budapest of its voting rights in Brussels. In practice, the measure has proven ineffective, as it requires unanimous support. Poland, whose populist government is also the target of an Article 7 procedure, has always had Hungary’s back.
These days, however, Poland is among the most vehemently anti-Putin member states. And Warsaw is horrified by Orban’s obstructionism. Belatedly, Poles realized that a strong EU is in their national interest, not against it. They should therefore persuade Orban to join the effort to weaken Putin’s war machine and strengthen Ukraine. If he doesn’t, the other 26 EU countries – including Poland – would have to strip Hungary of its votes.
Maintaining the Western alliance has never been easy. In the midst of a escalating war on its doorstep, it has rarely seemed more necessary. The time for populist political games is over.