Orbán, Putin, and Biden on the One-Year Anniversary of the Russo-Ukrainian War
Оn the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine, the unfolding tragedy seems destined to end only when one of the parties exhausts the resources to continue the fight. It is tempting to sigh in despair at the folly and the malice of the parties which have concocted the present impasse. The abysmal quality of public discourse on Ukraine all over the Western world is matched only by the unwillingness or inability of its political leaders – exemplified by the decision-making clique known as “President Joe Biden” – to avoid escalation unlikely to stop short of a nuclear war.
Things are not much better in Moscow. The quality of President Vladimir Putin’s vision and strategic planning is open to doubt no less than his readiness to mobilize the untapped resources of the Russian nation in what is fast becoming an existential struggle against the “collective West.” It is ironic that the leading voice of principled realism and moderation comes from a small European nation, Hungary. Thanks to its veteran leader, prime minister Viktor Orbán, it has been able to exert far greater influence than its size and resources would suggest possible.
Three leaders, three vastly different mindsets and messages. On Feb. 18, Orbán gave his “State of the Nation” address to the Parliament in Budapest. Three days later, on the afternoon of Feb. 21, Putin gave his presidential address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow. That same evening America’s own commander-in-Chief delivered in Warsaw what the White House officially called “Remarks by President Biden Ahead of the One-Year Anniversary of Russia’s Brutal and Unprovoked Invasion of Ukraine.”
Orbán spoke for a little over 50 minutes. He deserved an A grade for clarity, substance, and the right mix of occasional lightheartedness along with a steely resolve to defend his country’s national interests and his people’s morals. His assessment of the causes and consequences of the war in Ukraine was subversive by official Western standards, and 100 percent accurate. Orbán was relaxed yet somber at times, self-confident without veering into smugness. A fine performance indeed.
Putin spoke for an hour and 45 minutes and merited no better than a D+ for failing to enthuse and inspire his nation at a critical junction. Heralded as hugely important, his speech sounded like the product of a committee of unimaginative bureaucrats. Putin devoted half his time recapitulating the official Russian view of the conflict in Ukraine, which by now should be well-known to his audience both inside and outside the Gostiny Dvor Hall. His posture, formal at first, eventually gave way to visibly defensive body language. On the whole, the speech was as awkward to watch as it is tedious to read.
Biden took 22 minutes to read his oration. As befits the document’s official title, the “Remarks” were pure bellicose propaganda reminiscent of the East Bloc Soviet bigwigs. This was a solid F performance, both for his shaky delivery and for the text itself, a fact-free mix of millenarian platitudes and outright falsehoods. Biden (i.e. his handlers) may have planned the Warsaw event to serve as a pre-launch of his 2024 reelection campaign. On this form they would not get very far in a normal country; but in today’s America Joe Biden has a solid chance to continue pretending to be POTUS until January 2029.
Orbán started by saying that his team has reordered the Hungarian state “with courage that if not death-defying is at least Brussels-defying.” He ridiculed the EU machine in Brussels for “nitpicking the Hungarian rule of law” while corruption scandals are rocking EU institutions.
When the war in Ukraine started, Orbán said, “the West has moved firmly in the direction of the Wild West,” but Hungary’s policy remains to stay out of the war. So far this has not been easy, and it will not be easy in the future, because Hungary is a member of NATO and the EU, “and everyone there is on the side of war – or at least acts as if they are.” He continued:
Can Hungary afford to remain on the side of peace in such circumstances, in a way that is directly opposed to that of our allies? Of course we can, because Hungary is an independent, free and sovereign state, and we recognise no one but God above us. But is it right – morally right – for us to stay out of the war? I am convinced that it is the right thing – and indeed the only right thing.
In Ukraine Hungary does not see a war between the armies of good and evil, Orbán went on, but a war limited in time and (for now) in space: “It is their war, not ours.” He emphasized that “severing ties with Russia would run counter to our national interests which we have the right to define for ourselves.” Hungary will maintain its economic relations with Russia, and – looking beyond Brussels – it is advising the whole Western world to do the same.
“Ukraine is trying to convince Europe that the Russians will not stop until they reach the Atlantic,” according to Orbán, but the Hungarians are not buying that threat. Yet the risk of escalation has become chronic: “It reminds one of sleepwalkers on a roof, but it did not have to happen this way.” He continued:
We could have given a guarantee that we would not admit Ukraine to NATO; but we did the opposite, and confirmed our earlier decision in 2008 that we would admit them… When Russia launched an attack, the West did not isolate the conflict, but elevated it to a pan-European level. It could have classified it as a local, regional war or as a military conflict between two Slavic states, as Hungary proposed.
Orbán sees the result as yet another argument against the Brussels superstate and in favor of strong nation-states: when the member states decided, there was peace; when the imperial center decides, there is war. In the end, he said, the negotiations will not be between Kiev and Moscow: peace will come when the Americans and the Russians negotiate with each other:
That will inevitably happen, but the later it happens, the higher the price we will all pay. War enthusiasts believe that time is on the side of the Ukrainians and the West, so the fight must go on: it will change the balance of power, there will be victory over Russia, and victory will bring peace. The Hungarian government, however, believes that continued fighting will not bring victory and will not bring peace, but the deaths of hundreds of thousands more people, a widening conflict, countries engaged in open warfare, years of war, destruction, suffering and the threat of world war.
Sanctions are the weapons in Brussels’ war policy, Orbán’s said, but while targeting Russia they actually hit Europe, without depriving Russia of revenue. Turning to his plans for Hungary’s future, Orbán reiterated his government’s commitment to the traditional family:
Children are sacred to us, and it falls to adults to protect children at all costs. We do not care that the world has gone mad. We do not care what repellent aberrations some people indulge in. We do not care how Brussels excuses and explains the inexplicable… Because gender propaganda is not just an entertaining caper, not just rainbow chatter, but the greatest threat stalking our children.
The most amusing part of Orbán’s speech came with his tongue-in-cheek puns on the names of American ambassadors in Hungary. He remarked that Clinton had sent a good friend (André Goodfriend) but he has been replaced by one putting pressure on Hungary (Ambassador David Pressman). Orbán said he hoped that next time “they won’t send someone called Puccini,” thus suggesting that the U.S. may instigate a putsch in Hungary. Presumably, he was only joking…
There were no lighthearted moments in Putin’s long speech, video of which is available to the curious. While all of his key points were more or less valid, there was nothing new in the speech (except for suspending the New START treaty) and nothing of substance regarding the strategy to deal with what Putin called, in his opening lines, “a difficult, watershed period for our country.”
“The elites of the West do not hide their purpose,” Putin said. “That is, they intend to transform a local conflict into a phase of global confrontation.… We will react accordingly, because in this case we are talking about the existence of our country. But they also cannot fail to realize that it is impossible to defeat Russia on the battlefield.” The West wants to make the Russian people suffer from sanctions, Putin went on, but they have backfired. Those imposing sanctions are punishing themselves, while the Russian economy proved to be stronger than the West believed.
The people of Ukraine “have become the hostage of the Kyiv regime and its Western overlords, who have effectively occupied this country in the political, military and economic sense,” Putin said. “Today’s Ukrainian regime essentially serves not the national interests but those of third countries.” Putin then touched briefly on the moral and spiritual crisis of the Western world:
Look at what they do with their own peoples: the destruction of the family, cultural and national identity, perversion, and the abuse of children are declared the norm. And priests are forced to bless same-sex marriages… Millions of people in the West understand they are being led to a real spiritual catastrophe.
Appealing to the rich to keep their money in Russia, Putin said that “trying to run around with your hand outstretched, groveling, begging for money, is pointless. “Launch new projects, make money, invest in Russia. This is how you will multiply your capital and earn people’s recognition and gratitude for generations to come,” he said. “Recent events have convincingly shown that the image of the West as a safe haven, a refuge for capital, is a phantom, a fake.” This frankly undignified call on Russia’s exiled oligarchs to invest their ill-gotten gains back into Russia was also a tacit admission that they and their fortunes had been allowed to move abroad in the first place – which is probably the most colossal financial as well as moral failure of Putin’s 23 years in power.
Putin ended his oration on what was intended to be an upbeat note. “Russia will meet any challenges because we are all one country, a big and united nation,” he said. “We are confident in ourselves and confident in our strength. The truth is on our side.”
And that was all. No elucidation of Russia’s specific objectives on the ground in Ukraine, no illumination on what victory might look like. Even the suspension of New START seemed reactive, as if Putin felt the need to make a grand gesture to respond to Biden’s unexpected visit to Kiev. On balance, it was a less-than-impressive performance.
If Putin’s speech sounded like it was composed by a working group of GS-11 dullards, Biden’s remarks in Warsaw two hours later were part-Madison Avenue, part-Baptist revival meeting. He lashed out at Putin’s “murderous assault on Ukraine,” which put at risk “the principles that had been the cornerstone of peace, prosperity, and stability on this planet for more than 75 years.” He continued:
When Russia invaded, it wasn’t just Ukraine being tested. The whole world faced a test for the ages. Europe was being tested. America was being tested. NATO was being tested. All democracies were being tested. We did respond. We would be strong. We would be united. And the world would not look the other way…
One year later, we know the answers, Biden said. “Yes, we would stand up for sovereignty. And we did. Yes, we would stand up for the right of people to live free from aggression. And we did. And we would stand up for democracy. And we did… Democracy was too strong.” And Putin, according to Biden, “found himself at war with a nation led by a man whose courage would be forged in fire and steel: President Zelenskyy.”
“Our support for Ukraine will not waver, NATO will not be divided, and we will not tire,” Biden continued. “Democracies of the world will stand guard over freedom today, tomorrow, and forever. For that’s what’s at stake here: freedom.” And while decisions are ours to make now, he insisted, the principles and the stakes are eternal:
A choice between chaos and stability… Between hope and fear… freedom. Freedom. There is no sweeter word than freedom. There is no nobler goal than freedom. There is no higher aspiration than freedom. Americans know that, and you know it… Freedom. The enemy of the tyrant and the hope of the brave and the truth of the ages. Freedom. Stand with us. We will stand with you. Let us move forward with faith and conviction and with an abiding commitment to be allies not of darkness, but of light. Not of oppression, but of liberation. Not of captivity, but, yes, of freedom.
Glory hallelujah! Let us rejoice! Sir John Junor, the late editor of The Daily Express, used to say, when facing something seriously nauseating, “Pass the sick-bag, Alice!” There is no apter phrase to describe the experience of listening to Biden here.
As soon as Biden finished speaking, Coldplay’s “Sky Full of Stars” came on and a group of children, waving Ukrainian and American flags came out from behind the stage and surrounded him. The scene instantly brought to life my own memories from six decades old, of Comrade Tito being surrounded by a crowd of his Young Pioneers. It was surreal.
America is nominally headed by a senile wreck whose handlers are demented warmongers hell-bent on fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian. Russia is headed by a mediocre security bureaucrat who had never had the capacity to become a statesman and who is running out of good options. This is an ominous mix likely to have tragic consequences. The best we can hope for right now is that we will still be around to consider the significance of the second anniversary of the war.