How Russia Wages Special War Against NATO and the EU

Long before Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and began his slow-rolling aggression against Ukraine, I was explaining the concept of Special War, specifically as an alternative to the very expensive and not always effective high-intensity warfare at which the U.S. military excels. Special War involves the application of less kinetic and overt forms of power, especially espionage, covert action, and propaganda, to achieve national aims. As I’ve explained, this is something at which the American government, particularly our Department of Defense, does not excel, while unfortunately the Russians do.

My discussion of Special War became a minor meme and has entered the lexicon of strategy talk, which ought to stimulate a necessary debate, but there’s no evidence yet that anybody in Washington, DC, has thought hard about how to systematically get better in these dark arts. In recent months we’ve had a public demonstration of the Kremlin’s acumen in Special War, above all with the near-bloodless seizure of Crimea by Moscow’s “little green men,” while lately Ukraine has been subjected to the full covert arsenal of Russia’s military intelligence, GRU: spying, subversion, agitprop, and terrorism, much of it executed through cut-outs and proxies. Although the Kremlin’s efforts to subdue Ukraine without invasion are faltering — Putin seems to have grown recklessly overconfident after his Crimean victory and underestimated Kyiv’s resolve — there is no doubt that Moscow’s Special War has rendered sterling service in espionage and propaganda, including in the West.

It’s important to note that the Kremlin’s Special War is waged against the West in toto, not just Ukraine. For Putin to achieve his easily decipherable strategic aims — dividing NATO and bringing the European Union to heel while keeping the United States on the margins, thereby assuring Moscow’s free hand in Eastern Europe and restoring Russian greatness — he must demoralize and divide those in Europe who seek to challenge rebounding Russian influence in Europe and hegemony in the East. This is where the Kremlin’s powerful intelligence agencies, what they call the “special services,” come into play.

As I’ve discussed previously, Russian espionage against the West is at an all-time high, equal to if not exceeding Cold War levels. In many Western countries, GRU and its civilian counterpart, the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), have at least as many intelligence officers posted as the Soviets ever did. States that are members of NATO and the EU are of particular interest to Moscow as it seeks to divide alliances and conquer without fighting.

No European country better illustrates how Russia wages Special War than Hungary, which is a member of both NATO and the EU. Russian intelligence is highly active in Hungary, as I’ve explained before, with its agents burrowed deep into politics, the security sector, and the economy. I recently wrote about the consternation of French intelligence that the Russian company Rosatom sold a nuclear reactor to another European country because the SVR had been secretly informed about the offer made by its French competitor, Areva. That country was Hungary. Budapest has a strategic counterintelligence problem on its hands that it is unlikely to defeat on its own.

Neither is it evident that Budapest possesses the political will to seriously confront this covert threat from Moscow. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in power since 2010, has led his ruling Fidesz party down an increasingly Putinesque road, while Orbán’s admiration for the Russian leader is undisguised. Not only has the current government forged close economic ties with Russia, Orbán speaks respectfully about Putin, while a recent speech the prime minister gave which denounced liberalism and the existing European democratic model, while holding up Russia as an “illiberal” model worthy of emulation, caused shock across the EU. Although Orbán was castigating Western (neo)liberal economics more than democracy, per se, this was cold comfort as it’s evident that Putinphilia is in fashion in Budapest’s power circles.

While many in the West have registered their displeasure with Orbán and his throwback nationalist ways, and some have wondered if Hungary is something of a Russophilic Trojan Horse inside NATO and the EU, the alarming fact is that Fidesz is not a particularly right-wing party by current Hungarian standards. While Orbán possesses a strong parliamentary majority, it bears observing that the opposition is far to his right, and there lies the real concern — and Moscow’s opportunity.

In April, second place in Hungary’s national elections was taken by the far-right party Jobbik, which secured twenty-one percent of the vote and twenty-five seats in parliament. Founded in 2003, Jobbik (which means “better”*) is an unapologetically radically nationalist party that despises the EU and espouses overt anti-Semitism. While Jobbik’s particular bugbear is Hungary’s Roma population, which it has unpleasant plans for should the party ever come to power, Jobbik’s dislike of Israel and Jews isn’t something they seek to hide. In a typical case, Krisztina Morvai, Jobbik’s top female politico, suggested that Hungarian Jews who don’t like her or her party masturbate with “their tiny circumcised dicks.” In more-Putin-than-Putin fashion, Jobbik aggressively espouses traditional values and strongly dislikes gays.

The party’s youthful leader, Gábor Vona, who has led Jobbik since 2006, is prone to radical and sometimes downright odd statements, including praising Islam and espousing considerable Turcophilia in addition to his admiration for Putin’s Russia. (Affection for Turkey, whom they view as ethnic kin, has been a trope among Hungarian ultra-nationalists for over a century.) Vona’s comments about Iran are customarily warm also, as Jobbik sees Tehran as an ally against the World Zionist Conspiracy. 

Of greatest concern to NATO and the EU, however, are Jobbik’s views regarding most of Hungary’s neighbors. The party espouses open irredentism against nearly all neighboring states, where large Hungarian minorities are present. After World War One, no defeated power suffered greater territorial losses than Budapest. The Allied-imposed Treaty of Trianon deprived Hungary of the majority of its territory and population, while leaving nearly a third of all Magyars (i.e. ethnic Hungarians) outside the borders of much-truncated Hungary. There remain large Magyar populations in neighboring states, including over 150,000 in Ukraine, more than a quarter-million in Serbia (specifically Vojvodina), some 460,000 in Slovakia, and above all more than 1.2 million Magyars in Romania.

Most Hungarians continue to view Trianon as an injustice, while Magyar right-wingers have foamed at the mouth about it for nearly a century. Prime Minister Orbán has not been above playing the nationalist card, hinting at possible revisions to Trianon, causing alarm in the Danubian basin, but Jobbik goes considerably further. The party has frequently called for border revisions, leading to significant tensions with Romania and Slovakia, both of which are fellow members of NATO and the EU. While Fidesz exploits the Trianon issue every once in a while to score points with Hungarian nationalists, few think Orbán takes the issue seriously, while on the matter of its co-nationals outside Hungary Jobbik seems to be deadly earnest.

Then there is the troubling question of foreign support for Jobbik. Many believe the party has taken secret funds from Tehran, but that has yet to be proved, while Jobbik’s close ties to Moscow are no longer a matter of conjecture. In May, Hungary’s Parliamentary National Security Committee accused Béla Kovács, a leading Jobbik player and a member of the European Parliament (MEP), of being an active Russian spy. Although he was short of funds for years after his salad bar restaurant failed, Kovács by 2010 was flush with cash, leading to questions about the origin of his wealth. This may have something to do with Kovács’s regular clandestine meetings with Russian case officers that Hungarian counterintelligence uncovered. 

Kovács lived for several years in Russia and made no efforts to disguise his deep admiration for that country and Vladimir Putin. He was an agent hiding in plain sight. In Brussels, as an MEP, Kovács was widely considered to be more a lobbyist for Moscow than for Budapest. Significantly, Kovács also serves as the President of the Alliance of European National Movements, an umbrella group of far-right parties across the EU, several of which are believed to be on the Kremlin payroll. Kovács protested his innocence of any espionage, and Jobbik brushed off accusations of secret Moscow ties, but the Hungarian media was generally skeptical, calling the suspect “KGBéla” — the nickname by which he was known inside his own party!

It is widely suspected that Kovács is not the only Jobbik higher-up to be secretly working for Moscow. Party leader Gábor Vona has made trips to Russia, palling around with leading Kremlin ideologist and ultra-nationalist Aleksandr Dugin. Former Jobbik members have stated that Vona is actually a Kremlin agent, while the Budapest media wondered about the Jobbik’s head’s  curious comment in January: “masses of our sleeping agents await our victory in state administration. They are still wary of showing their support in public, but we can count on them when the time comes.” More than a few Hungarian patriots have looked at Jobbik and determined that it is not an actual nationalist party, rather a fake one in the pay of Moscow.

This background inevitably raises questions about some of Jobbik’s recent actions. The party has fully taken Moscow’s side in the Ukraine crisis, denouncing the government in Kyiv as “chauvinistic and illegitimate,” while Jobbik has also encouraged ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine not to serve in the military to resist the Russian-directed war in the country’s east. Jobbik has tried to stir up trouble for Ukraine in the Transcarpathia region, where the country’s Hungarians are, and there have been strange events happening lately near the Hungarian border. Antiwar protests among ethnic Hungarians have become a nuisance in Transcarpathia, where local Hungarian politicians have openly accused Jobbik of fomenting unrest to aid Moscow in its war against Ukraine, a view which is held by Ukrainian intelligence as well. Last week’s mysterious attack on the headquarters of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) headquarters building in the border town of Uzhhorod, adjacent to Hungary, by four men in camouflage, has raised more questions still.

Of greatest concern are Jobbik’s recent efforts to stir up serious trouble inside NATO and the EU, particularly with regards to Romania, a critical frontline state for the Atlantic Alliance as its neighbor Ukraine is convulsed by war. Last week, party leader Vona, in a speech that praised Russia and denounced Hungary’s “Euro-Atlantic orientation,” stated that autonomy for Hungarians living in Romania is inevitable, “no matter what the Romanian state might do.” Needless to add, this provocative statement caused serious concern in Bucharest and has raised tensions between Romania and Hungary, yet again, at a critical time when such disharmony is detrimental to both NATO and the EU.

Cui bono? is the obvious question to be asked here. While Jobbik certainly are Hungarian nationalists who pine for the revision of Trianon — which most Hungarians understand is a fantasy in any military and political terms — the timing of the party’s provocations against Ukraine and Romania must be questioned. Given its known ties with the Kremlin and its intelligence services, one need not be overly suspicious to wonder about who is calling the shots inside Jobbik. This issue matters far beyond Hungary, and with the rise of far-right parties in many European countries, some of whom, like Jobbik, openly admire Putin and his country, all those in the Euro-Atlantic region who think Russia does not represent a positive force for peace should pay attention.

*Its full name is Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom)




24 comments on “How Russia Wages Special War Against NATO and the EU”
  1. xtmar says:

    What would be involved in kicking Hungary out of the EU or NATO if Jobbik were to come to power? Is that even possible?

    I mean, it’s one thing to have an anti-EU/pro-devolution party that’s duly elected, like UKIP, but it seems like advocating invasion of another NATO/EU state is quite another, and possibly something that it would be worth revoking membership for. For that matter, what would the Article 5 commitments of the US, et al, be?

    1. 20committee says:

      It would be a huge diplomatic mess, frankly. Good news (such as it is) being that I can’t imagine a scenario where Jobbik comes to power. They are a useful foil for Fidesz as-is.

  2. Sort of like the worldwide “peace movements” sponsored by the USSR back in the days of the Cold War. We weren’t good at countermeasures then either.

  3. xtmar says:

    It would appear that the Special War is now a real war.

  4. peteybee says:

    (1) Now you see why the Russian-speaking world chafes at US support for Ukraine’s ultra-right (i.e., neo-Nazi or Nazi-Lite) parties, who came to power after Maidan and received our government’s overt blessing, and are actively armed by Ukraine and sent out into the world to fight?

    (2) Suggesting that Russia’s goal is to threaten the EU or NATO seems far fetched. I think it would be more accurate and useful to say that Russia’s goal is to deny US power projection into the former soviet union and degrade it in eastern europe, and to actively project power into the former soviet republics.

    1. 20committee says:

      Calling the Kyiv government “neo-Nazi” reveals you as yet another Kremlin hack who need not be taken seriously in any way — FYI.

      1. peteybee says:

        Did I say the Kiev government?

        I was referring to the ultra-right parties Svoboda and Praviy Sektor, extremist Ukrainian fringe parties not unlike the Jobbik crowd in Hungary, who each polled low single digit % in Ukranian elections. After Maidan, as a reward for leading the charge in the revolution, I suppose, their people took top posts in the defense, security, and justice parts of the Ukrainian government, complete with McCain and Kerry photo op’s.

      2. 20committee says:

        You: “Ukraine’s ultra-right (i.e., neo-Nazi or Nazi-Lite) parties, who came to power after Maidan and received our government’s overt blessing” … “came to power” is the key phrase. You don’t deceive well. Also, I must have missed the US Embassy Kyiv party for PS, did (Jewish) Ms Nuland cut the cake?

  5. Guy Montag says:

    I wonder if there’s a counter strategy in the works by the Euro -Atlantic alliance to Putinist Russia’s hybrid warfare doctrine?

    1. 20committee says:

      There better be!

  6. MarqueG says:

    Great reporting along with the analysis and historical perspective.

    What I’ve found striking time and again since the end of the Cold War / Soviet collapse is how the Kremlin’s deep state has played a game they perceive as having succeeded for the West. That is to say, the Kremlin’s secret service hierarchy has thought the West succeeded in the Warsaw Pact and post-Soviet republics by supporting subversive political (quango-ish) institutions under the banner of liberal democracy and free markets, for instance the Catholic Church in the 1980s or Soros’s Open Society institutions in the 1990s. The Kremlin’s deep state under Putin has been attempting a similar strategy to undermine the West and Nato, as exemplified in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe via nationalistic socialist political movements. But within Russia itself, Putin’s efforts have focused on snuffing out the pro-democracy, pro-liberal, and pro-environmental movements.

    In the early 1990s, in my salad days as a German-American vagabond (Lebenskünstler), I came across the offspring of post-Soviet oligarchs at a pan-European economic conference where the Russians were the least academic, and merely in the West for luxury shopping and off-site “business” dealings, in retrospect probably somewhat gangsterish. At the evening jour fixe rounds where the Russians attended, frequently dropping C-notes to buy rounds at the bar, one or the other Russian explained that they were living the Western capitalist dream. In hindsight, they were living the version of the Western capitalist dream as portrayed by the CPSU: all greed, oligarchy, and cronyism.

    Probably at least every other denizen of America or the West feel that our own political masters are driven by greed, oligarchy, and cronyism, but very few would think this to be an intentional, winning design rather than a culmination of historical trends and happenstance. For the Russians, the post-Soviet prism — the narrative, if you’ll forgive — was very much informed by Soviet communist-party propaganda, particularly among the scions of the old Soviet nomenklatura prominent in the post-Soviet winner circles.

    In short, “they,” meaning the Russian political leaders, are carrying out their take on what they think won the Cold War for us.

    Yikes! All apologies for the prolix psycho-geo-poli-analytics. 😦

    1. MarqueG says:

      I wrote: “But within Russia itself, Putin’s efforts have focused on snuffing out the pro-democracy, pro-liberal, and pro-environmental movements.” By which I mean the organizations often backed by Western money during the Yeltsin years and into the Putin regnum.

    2. 20committee says:

      Much appreciated, actually, interesting stuff!

  7. WJM says:

    Btw, any similar article in the making about Finland?….;))

    Have a similar uneasy feeling about their current/recent politics & statements….if only for some high in government believing Putemkin at every word he says, completely ignoring each and any of his previous lies.
    (per the last comments on the aid-convoy).
    Too many appeasers, no firm standpoints.

    At the same time, they too have problems with right-wing folks & neo-nazi’s, just like Sweden and Norway.
    (I often think this might be a specific nordic problem, related to a mix of paganism & cabin-fever/lack-of-sunlight, more than just being too blond….8-)).
    (I once drove up to Sweden in early winter, and it *is* depressing, that sudden darkness)

    Also, the right-wing if not far-right/neo-nazii mercenaries in Ukraine, Asow, might be even harder to explain….anti-Putin, pro-Ukraine, anti-EU.
    Almost as erratic & unpredictable as islamitic factions….one second fighting eachother, next second allies….brothers in arms, brothers in misery.
    (thusfar, I used that phrase nearly exclusively in the context of South-Africa/Mbeki & Mugabe….but alas, both are a (by)product of the Cold War also….no where else on the planet was so much eastblock weaponry accumulated….had the Berlin Wall not crumbled, Mandela might not have been released that soon, easily and bloodless either)

    1. 20committee says:

      Eventually 🙂

  8. WJM says:

    While HRW is not without critic(s), to put it mildy, one of their comments (context phosphor-bomb canard) showed an interesting match with the above special-war article….in particular an aspect that is probably somewhere in the overall concept, but still interesting to see it being expressed so clearly & bluntly:
    This certainly wouldn’t be the first time that Russian state media has manufactured montages about eastern Ukraine, twisted the truth, or outright misstated facts. It’s difficult to avoid the impression that aside from mobilizing public outrage in Russia about Ukraine, these manipulations aim to distract and exhaust the experts whose job it is to sift between fact and fiction. It’s like an incendiary weapon that explodes, leaving in its wake anger and disorientation until the media cycle moves on. The Ukrainian media is also no stranger to this tactic.
    (the very last line is what angered the author, making the ‘crime’ a relative argument)
    (WJ: relativation is the shortest way too hell)

    Bottom line of this aspect: it’s the *amount* of desinformation that causes problems in the west….not the lies itself, but the continuous energy required to refute them….
    And/or: the power of repetition, upside down.
    Not being worn out by the enemy itself, but by defending the truth.
    In the old days we would only defend our territory, our rights, our freedom….that too could consume too much energy, if the opponent takes his time….but this is different.

  9. WJM says:

    Btw, in the category ‘any conspiracy is as good as the next one’:

    What if I see a Putemkin plot in all this also?

    (Belgian nuclear reactor sabotaged, earlier damage/fire in trafo-station elsewhere, linking to French network, now also under new under new suspicion/scrutiny)

    (dusting off his old books about Spetznas)

  10. A. Horthy Worthy Canaris says:

    Assume for the moment that you are in Jobbik (not as a gov provocateur/spy/infiltrator but because you are a believer). Assume further that what Jobbik wants is what it says it wants.

    do you think your goals are more or less likely to be achieved with 1) EU ascendant over Russia or 2) Russia ascendant over the EU? Obviously “ascendant” is just a proxy as there are shades of gray and lots of them. Nonetheless…

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