The European Union’s long-delayed deal to embargo Russian oil, finalized late Monday, effectively exempts Hungary from the costly step the rest of the bloc is taking to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
While Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, has cast his weekslong opposition to the deal as purely about shielding his country’s economy, it was also the latest step in what has been a decade-long turn of Hungary’s leadership toward closer alignment with Russia, at times at the expense of relations with its fellow members of the European Union and NATO.
The pivot has occurred despite deep-seated suspicion in Hungary of Russian power and influence based on the history of Russian and Soviet troops brutally cracking down on Hungarian uprisings in 1848-49 and in 1956.
Mr. Orban, an avowedly illiberal leader who earlier in his career was a vocal critic of Moscow, has increasingly spoken admiringly of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, and his brand of nationalism, expressing sympathies for Mr. Putin’s security demands to NATO. He has also painted Hungary’s interests as being distinct from the West by fanning culture wars and fears of liberal values lapping at Hungary’s borders, speaking in March about “the gender insanity sweeping across the Western world.”
Under Monday’s deal, E.U. nations agreed to block imports of Russian oil by sea, which leaves Hungary’s supply intact because it is landlocked and receives its oil by pipeline. The agreement also includes an assurance that should the pipeline be damaged — it runs through Ukraine — Hungary could buy Russian oil by other means without being accused of violating the European blockade.
“Hungary is exempt from the oil embargo!” Mr. Orban declared on his Facebook page Monday. He had previously said cutting off Russian oil “amounts to an atomic bomb being dropped on the Hungarian economy.”
Hungary accounts for only a small fraction of the flow of Russian oil to the E.U.; the embargo will deprive Russia of billions of dollars in revenue regardless of Hungary’s continued imports.
On the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, as other allies were raising alarm about Russia’s buildup of troops near the border, Mr. Orban traveled to Moscow to reaffirm a deal for cheap Russian natural gas that has helped him keep energy prices low at home and maintain political support.
Since the war’s start, Hungary has treaded a fine line, joining the first rounds of sanctions against Russia and accepting Ukrainian refugees, while refusing to allow deliveries of arms bound for Ukraine to go through the country or to accept additional U.S. troops. Mr. Orban won re-election in April for a fourth consecutive term despite criticism that he was cozying up to Mr. Putin, who publicly congratulated him on his victory.
Hungary is more reliant on Russian energy than other European nations, receiving around 80 percent of its gas from the Russian state-run Gazprom and more than half of its oil from Russia. Russia has also heavily invested in the expansion of a nuclear power plant in the country, which generates about half of its electricity.