From Budapest to Warsaw to Ankara, a new generation of strongmen within the alliance seeks to govern in a manner closer to that of Putin than to that of the democratic reformers of the immediate post-Cold War epoch. Which raises the question of whether an alliance, designed to contain the Soviet Union and ostensibly organized around democratic ideals, can endure attacks on the rule of law by a growing subset of its members.
“Russia aims to weaken U.S. influence in the world and divide us from our allies and partners,” says the Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy. The line, while accurate, reflects poorly on the strategy’s ostensible author, given that among other things it implicitly refers to Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election on behalf of Donald Trump. Left unwritten is that Russia’s goal of creating distance between the United States and its allies is part of what attracted it to Trump in the first place. As a candidate, Trump called NATO “obsolete.” As president, he initially declined to reaffirm America’s commitment to the alliance’s mutual defense provision, before begrudgingly reversing course at the insistence of his advisers.
Russian interference in elections on both sides of the Atlantic, and particularly its recent alleged poisoning of a former spy in the United Kingdom, may have had the unintended consequence of drawing many NATO allies closer. Yet divisions emerging from democratic backsliding by NATO states may have the effect, over the longer run, of contributing to Russian aims.
Start with Hungary, once considered a post-Cold War democratic success story. Since coming to power in 2010, the government led by Viktor Orbán has enacted far-reaching changes to the country’s constitution, election laws, and courts. The effect has been to politicize virtually all elements of national government to advantage Orbán’s Fidesz party, and to facilitate blatant crony capitalism.
Orbán, who lacks a strong political opponent to run against this weekend, has instead focused a stream of invective against migrants, Muslims, the European Union, and George Soros, while repeatedly flirting with anti-Semitism. These messages are delivered via a once-independent media that has largely been captured by the prime minister’s allies. Civil-liberties groups in the country, under legal attack for years, are bracing for increased hardship if not outright elimination by a leader who has publicly praised Putin’s illiberal state.
Not content to simply emulate the Russian model domestically, Orbán has also adopted an increasingly pro-Russian foreign policy, and, in the words of a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee minority staff report, “has taken no discernable steps to stop or even discourage Russian malign influence.” Orbán has been explicit in his criticism of Western sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Multiple reports, meanwhile, indicate that Russian intelligence services may be using Hungary as, in the words of a former U.S. embassy official, “an intel[ligence] forward operating base in NATO and the EU.”