May 2019

By Andras Juhasz

Thirty years after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and on the 20th anniversary of the NATO accession of Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, the U.S. administration is showing renewed engagement towards the Visegrád countries (“V4”). The emphasis is now on security and defense cooperation, energy security, and countering Russian and Chinese malign influence in the region.

This is vitally important.

Under President Obama, American diplomats routinely addressed U.S. concerns about democratic backsliding in the region, especially regarding Hungary and Poland. Since Donald Trump’s election, the U.S. has been less critical of the region’s leaders. Its primary objectives have focused on reducing Russian and Chinese influence in the region. This approach has already delivered results for Washington and has the potential to produce similar successes in each of the V4 countries.

The Central Europe “reset button” was publicly pressed earlier this year when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland. In Budapest, Secretary Pompeo argued that a foreign policy vacuum caused by the Obama administration’s disengagement from the region was being filled by the “Russians and the Chinese getting more influence here.” He contrasted this by emphasizing the importance of transatlantic values, civil liberties, and the rule of law. Pompeo also met with representatives of Hungarian NGOs, announced new initiatives to support independent media, and highlighted the fight against corruption. In Warsaw, Pompeo adopted a softer tone; he urged Poland to stay on the course of freedom and democracy, although he did not speak about democratic backsliding in Slovakia.

The fact that the V4 countries approach Russia differently has a significant impact on their relations with the United States. During his visit to the region, Secretary Pompeo spoke about excellent U.S.-Polish security cooperation and welcomed the Polish and Slovak governments' increased contribution to NATO defense. Polish and American interests are also aligned on energy security; both want to stop Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would directly transfer gas to Germany, bypassing Ukraine. This alignment pays dividends: Washington rewards its cooperative regional partners with high-level visits and meetings. President Trump has already met the Polish President and the Czech and Slovak Prime Ministers in the White House.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been invited to Washington on May 13, the last of the V4 region’s leaders to meet President Trump. While an important step, there are several Russia-related issues that make it difficult for Washington to elevate its cooperation with Budapest to the next level. Last year, the U.S. publicly expressed its disappointment that the Hungarian government denied a U.S. request to extradite two Russian arms dealers and instead handed them over to Moscow. Shortly after Secretary Pompeo’s Budapest visit, Hungary announced that the Moscow-based International Investment Bank would move its headquarters to Hungary. Some argue that providing diplomatic immunity to the Cold War-era bank's staff may create security problems in Budapest. 

In terms of more strategic issues, Hungary’s hindering of Ukraine’s NATO accession has been a sore point for the Trump Administration as well as other allies. In February, Pompeo warned the Hungarian government to “not let Putin drive wedges between friends in NATO”. The U.S. is putting pressure on Hungary to be more flexible vis-à-vis Ukraine. Ukraine’s newly elected president expressed openness to reviewing Ukraine’s language law, which has been used as a reason by Budapest to oppose its eastern neighbor’s NATO integration.

On a more positive note, the U.S. and Hungary signed a Defense Cooperation Agreement in Washington in April. This was said to be the condition for the Orban-Trump meeting on May 13. Signing the agreement is seen as an important achievement for Washington in its efforts to keep all Central European countries as close allies on security or, at least, in check against Russia and China.

The U.S. is hopeful that the Orbán-Trump meeting will be the final piece in the jigsaw to reset relations with Central Europe.