[Opinion] Poland and Hungary's ugly divorce over Ukraine

Over one year into the war, the rift between Hungary and Poland only deepens. They used to call themselves partners-in-crime who would “steal [European money] horses together” (Jarosław Kaczyński in 2016).

Just three months before the invasion, Warsaw was so head-over-heels in love with Budapest that it hosted an international event for the crème de la crème of pro-Russian political parties, trying in vain to please Hungarians and establish a common political platform.

  • Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński: ‘For Poland, Hungary has turned from a strategic partner to a strategic rival despite ideological alignments’ (Photo:

The beginnings of the Russian invasion exposed cracks in the foundation of the illiberal ranks. In short, there is no unity between the leading politicians of the far-right on fundamental questions.

With the most recent developments, it exposes further differences in strategic culture, often in Kafka-style surreal situations. Now, the strained relationship manifests as electricity cuts to a popular Polish film festival in Budapest, a Hungarian chief of staff referring to Hitler’s invasion of Poland as a local conflict, and a complete divergence on the EU strategic autonomy.

Back in 2022, the relationship was underpinned by Viktor Orbán’s political campaign, who won his fourth consecutive term with a pro-Russian message of appeasement and a disregard for Ukrainian freedom.

At that same time, Polish society was already processing between four to six million refugees, and government officials were travelling by train to Kyiv, along with Czech and Slovenian leaders, to show support to their Ukrainian counterparts. The trip marked the end of the Budapest-Warsaw axis.

Rest assured that leaders in Warsaw were at first merely catching up with the popular mood at home that would punish them for maintaining friendly relations with any pro-Russian leader. They might have hoped, intoxicated by the charm of Budapest’s far-right allure, that Orbán would finally turn around and see the Kremlin’s aggressive actions towards Ukraine for what it was.

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But Warsaw soon discovered that their partner-in-crime meant business when he peed into their common, illiberal, tent.

Film festival blackout

On 4 May this year, at the well-established Polish Film Spring in Budapest, day three was interrupted by a blackout. The energy provider E.ON cut off power to the Polish Institute — a cultural diplomacy arm of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Warsaw — citing a contractual confusion; this de facto shut down the third day of a popular festival in the centre of the Hungarian capital.

The institute’s director had the electricity contract signed in January, but the company had somehow lost the agreement contract. Then, it did not even bother sending a notification or a phone call to any Polish diplomats before cutting them off.

It could be considered an unrelated incident if it weren’t for all the coercive and corrupt practices in Hungary, which extend from local businesses and media to major companies. The shadow of the Hungarian regime spreads like cancer across the political culture. After 12 years in absolute control, it enables the most sinister voices — not on the fringes, but at the centre of the policy debate.

On 9 May (a day only Moscow and Minsk still consider victory over Hitler), Gábor Böröndi, the new chief of the Hungarian defence forces general staff, appeared with a stunning remark on morning television: “Let’s think of the Second World War, in 1939 the German-Polish war started as a local war, and what was the end? That escalation was not contained in time by a peace process, leading to the Second World War.”

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Warsaw was furious, and the PiS government must have felt betrayed.

‘Stab in the back’

After all, its anti-German tirades during the electoral year are meant to position their vision of Poland as the true heir of European heritage defended against barbarian hordes from the east and the west. Orbán’s man stabbed Kaczyński in the back by calling the 1939 invasion — with the deliberate aim to eradicate Poland’s population — a local conflict that could have been contained. No wonder the Polish ambassador hit back, with not-so-diplomatic comments in public, so that Budapest caved in and apologised.

But it turned out that the Hitler obsession ran deep in Orbán’s cultural bloodstream. Accused many times of Nazi-like propaganda, he overstepped himself when he compared Adolf Hitler’s plans of European “unity” to the EU’s vision of the “ever closer union” during a speech on 12 May in Veszprém in the west of Hungary.

Rest assured that the Hungarian leader knows how to stir controversy, but he probably still distinguishes between lies and reality. The trouble is that as time passes by, his followers are prone to forget or reject facts to align more closely with the rubbish he repeats to maintain power. And that poses even greater risks for the type of strategic culture currently nourished in Hungary.

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For Poland, Hungary has turned from a strategic partner to a strategic rival despite ideological alignments.

In general, Poland fully supports Ukraine by giving away its arsenal and indebting itself to buy all rolling, flying and sailing equipment while showing little effort in establishing collaboration with Germany.

At the same time, Hungary pays lip service to Nato’s foes while silently building up German tank and ammo factories, preparing to take advantage of the drive for strategic autonomy.

Orbán, similarly to Putin or Xi Jinping, often refers in awe to the EU’s strategic autonomy. All three explicitly and implicitly call for more European autonomy from the US, exploiting old De Gaulle ghosts, which Emmanuel Macron sometimes endorses.

Poland, which accepts in principle an open strategic autonomy only if it grows European capacity to deliver within Nato and with the US on board, has been growing weary of the Hungarian global plot. Yet, in the illiberal play, Poland has already been outmanoeuvred , and its every move is clearly tainted by Budapest’s gambit.

What started in 2015 as a friends-with-benefits relationship between Orbán and Kaczyński, for Poland and Hungary, ends with disgust and enmity, which will not be overcome until both leaders leave.

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