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The Kremlin's Weaponization of Disinformation

How the Kremlin’s Disinformation Machine Weaponized a Contentious Issue of Hungarian-Ukrainian Relations

During a recent interview with Tucker Carlson, Russian President Vladimir Putin devoted a surprising amount of airtime to Transcarpathia – the Western Ukrainian region bordering Hungary – complete with a feel-good personal tale of a 1980s road trip there. When Tucker Carlson asked Putin if he believed that “Hungary has a right to take back its land from Ukraine”, the Russian President answered: “one may say that they could claim back those lands of theirs, while having no right to do that, it is at least understandable.”

Why did Putin devote so much time to giving a history lesson on a little-known part of the world, Transcarpathia specifically? Is he singling out Hungary to prop up his irredentist PM friend in Budapest? Hardly. Putin’s comments were dropped as Hungarian-Ukrainian relations finally started to move towards reconciliation. Hungary has been sticking to its guns (literally and metaphorically) and made any support of Ukraine within the EU contingent upon Kyiv’s respect for Hungarian minority rights in Ukraine. However, Hungarian Minister of foreign affairs, Péter Szijjartó has recently stated during his first visit to Ukraine since the start of the full-scale invasion that “We want to improve cooperation between Ukraine and Hungary”. So, Putin’s comment was a blatant attempt to sow discord and to destroy the fledgling trust between Budapest and Kyiv by spreading toxic disinformation about non-existent Hungarian territorial claims of Transcarpathia.

Disinformation spreads where information is lacking. So, let’s look at the historical facts to understand why this matters to all parties involved. The region of Transcarpathia formed an integral part of the Kingdom of Hungary from the Hungarian Conquest in the late 9th century up until 1920, when the treaty of Trianon conferred it upon Czechoslovakia. The First Vienna Award (November 1938) granted the ethnic Hungarian majority parts to Budapest, subsequently, the rest of the region was annexed by Hungary after the disintegration of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. With the Soviet Red Army rapidly advancing during the final stages of World War II, Hungarian authorities evacuated the region in October 1944. Subsequently, the Czechoslovakian government in-exile briefly tried to reestablish control over Transcarpathia, however in July 1945 it was officially ceded to the Soviet Union and then incorporated into the Ukrainian SSR in January 1946.

Despite massive deportations under Stalin, and aggressive efforts at assimilation during decades of Soviet rule, a sizeable ethnic Hungarian community survived into the 21st century, which was estimated  around 130,000 in the last credible survey. The rights of this community became a flashpoint of Hungarian-Ukrainian relations after the illegal annexation of Crimea by Putin in 2014. Fighting a war in the Donbas in Eastern Ukraine that was justified by the Kremlin with the unsubstantiated claim that Russian-speakers in Ukraine were facing genocide at the hands of Ukrainian troops, Kyiv implemented a significant shift in its approach towards minorities. A series of laws passed by the parliament in Kyiv from 2017 onwards restricted ethnic minorities’ well-established rights in the embattled country. The Hungarian community living in Transcarpathia was collateral damage of Kyiv’s acts targeting the Russian-speaking population. As a result, however, the relationship between Kyiv and Budapest became increasingly strained.

The contentious issue of the Hungarian ethnic minority in Transcarpathia coupled with the region’s historical ties to Hungary was perfect material for the Kremlin-sponsored disinformation machine to sow distrust and enmity between the two bordering nations.

Since the illegal annexation of Crimea, one of the most persistent Kremlin propaganda narratives – also mentioned by Putin during the interview Carlson  – is that Ukraine with its currently recognized borders is an artificial state, and as such it will eventually disintegrate and be carved up by its neighbors. The story goes all the way back to 2016 when Russian disinformation outlets claimed that Poland, Romania, and Hungary would annex parts of Ukraine.

Some Kremlin-backed fakes occasionally peddled even more outrageous falsehoods online. Descending into the darkest spheres of Russian disinformation we stumble upon an Austria wanting to reestablish the 19th century Habsburg Empire with U.S. backing, which would incorporate large parts of Western-Ukraine – regions also claimed by an imperialist Poland of course. According to the narrative, Türkiye is plotting to acquire the famous Black Sea port of Odessa – Russia, of course, would not let this happen. Even the 2.8-million-strong Baltic nation of Lithuania – or Latvia, the two countries are confused in the propaganda articles sometimes – would arm itself to snatch certain parts of a disintegrating Ukraine.

In the Kremlin’s propaganda operations, Hungary’s alleged drive to absorb the Transcarpathia region of Ukraine comes less from imperial ambitions but stems from Budapest’s aims to protect the Hungarian ethnic minority in the region. Already in late 2015, Hungary was allegedly establishing paramilitary groups in Transcarpathia to protect ethnic Hungarian communities, while 114 settlements allegedly expressed their will to join Hungary. In 2019, Russian outlets floated that NATO is set to invade Western-Ukraine, and in such a scenario, Transcarpathia would be put “under the care” of Hungary. In 2020, a decentralization reform by the Zelensky government was falsely interpreted as one  creating a separate “Hungarian region” in Transcarpathia with the explicit aim of ceding it to Budapest.

After the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, alleged Polish imperial ambitions against Ukraine (and Belarus) have been pushed so aggressively by Kremlin officials as well as by the Russian disinformation ecosystem that some major Western-European news outlets felt the need to publish articles debunking them. The EU’s Disinfo database – a project run by the East StratCom Task Force (ESCTF) which is a part of the European External Action Service – lists more than a 120 cases since the start of the full-scale invasion containing alleged Polish territorial claims in Ukraine. At the same time purported Hungarian territorial ambitions are only listed eight times in the database during the same timeframe and not once independently from alleged demands by other countries or NATO.

To be clear: Hungary has no territorial claims regarding Transcarpathia. Not a single Hungarian Prime Minister since 1990 ever uttered anything along those lines. The 1991 Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Cooperation signed between Kyiv and Budapest formally and legally declares that the two countries must “mutually respect each other’s territorial integrity, and declare that they do not have, and will not have territorial demands against each other.” Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, leading Hungarian government officials reaffirmed Budapest’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity on countless occasions. Most recently: on the two-year-anniversary of the invasion, Balázs Orbán, political director of the Hungarian Prime Minister (no relation) said that “safeguarding the sovereignty of Ukraine is in Hungary’s elementary interest, and the Government of Hungary will continue to strongly support it at all relevant fora.”

Budapest’s vociferous advocacy for minority rights in Transcarpathia does not translate into territorial ambitions. They never have since the Hungarian regime change. Kyiv seems to perfectly understand this as well as the Kremlin’s strategy to confuse, divide, and rule. Ukrainian foreign minister Dmitro Kuleba recent remarks backs this up: „I think they are pro-Hungarian. If they were pro-Russian, Peter (Szijjártó) would not have said at the recent meeting that he respects Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.” The rest is Russian disinformation and should be treated and countered as such. It is a reminder that discrepancies between reality and propaganda must be revealed. The international community must remain vigilant as battles are also fought with information and narratives. The Kremlin’s propaganda is not a chain of random acts but relentlessly coordinated attempts to undermine western unity and Ukrainian resilience.

Mónika Palotai Senior Fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute, Washington DC, Non-resident expert at the Warsaw Institute, Warsaw, PhD candidate at the National University of Public Services, Budapest in International Criminal Law.

Dr. Kristóf György Veres Hungarian Historian, International Director at the Danube Institute, Budapest, Visiting Research Fellow at the Center for the National Interest.

This article was originally published by RealClearDefense and made available via RealClearWire.
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