Hungary’s foreign minister Péter Szijjártó has met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow to request additional gas supplies, in a rare visit by a high-level EU official to Russia since the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
Szijjártó, who was given Russia’s prestigious Order of Friendship months before the February invasion of Ukraine, has insisted on keeping the channels of communication with Moscow open, arguing that Hungary has no way to decouple from Russian energy resources fast enough without badly damaging its own economy.
“Like it or not, [buying extra gas] wouldn’t be possible without resources from Russia,” Szijjártó said at a press conference after Thursday’s meeting. “The fact remains . . . without Russian resources it is simply impossible to buy so much extra natural gas in Europe today.”
Budapest’s longstanding warm ties with Moscow have unsettled its western partners. Hungary has adopted a neutral position on the Ukraine war, in contrast to central European counterparts who back Kyiv, and the government has said international partners should maintain pragmatic relations with Moscow.
The move comes as the EU is braced for a deepening energy crisis this winter. Brussels has asked member states to reduce demand by 15 per cent between August and March and Russia has been accused of using energy supplies to blackmail Europe.
Moscow restarted the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to Germany on Thursday but has kept capacity at only 40 per cent, a level it first imposed in June and which caused European gas prices to double from already elevated levels.
Hungary’s engagement with Russia at a time when Moscow has cut many other EU members from gas supplies will be viewed unfavourably in many capitals, as it risks undermining unity in the bloc, which has already been strained by the energy crisis.
Some member states, including Spain and Portugal, have pushed back against calls to curb demand and have made thinly veiled criticisms of Germany, Europe’s largest economy, for its role in the crisis given its heavy dependence on Russian gas.
At the press conference following the foreign ministers’ meeting, Lavrov said he had told Szijjártó Russia would consider Hungary’s request. He contrasted Russia’s close co-operation with the EU member state to the tension between Moscow and the rest of the bloc.
“We have a mutual understanding that we, both Russia and Hungary, are always driven by our national interests,” Lavrov said, after a lengthy critique of the EU’s sanctions policy.
“A battle is ongoing. The European bureaucracy wants to subjugate all and everyone, the national governments. It wants to dictate conditions and to buy out any dissent.”
Szijjártó said peace should be the overriding goal of international diplomacy, with an immediate ceasefire. “We don’t want a world order again where we find ourselves on the periphery of one bloc, in a buffer zone or in an area next to a buffer zone,” he said. “We’ve been through that once. We lost decades over it.”
A meeting between Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán and Russian president Vladimir Putin was not on the agenda, he said in response to a question.
Budapest voted for the six EU sanctions packages imposed on Russia after the outbreak of the war. However, it secured an open-ended exemption from a Russian oil import ban after threatening to use its veto to block the latest package.
Orbán told state media last month that Europe was on a self-defeating trajectory with its sanctions policies. “The war is clearly dragging on,” he said. “At first I thought we’d shot ourselves in the foot [with the sanctions], but now it’s clear that the European economy has shot itself in the lungs, and everywhere we see that it’s gasping for air.”
Hungary depends on Russia for about 85 per cent of its gas. It signed a 15-year agreement with Gazprom last year on an annual shipment of 3.5bn cubic metres via the TurkStream pipeline and another 1 bcm from Austria.
Additional reporting by David Sheppard in London