(Bloomberg) -- The U.S will fight to regain influence in NATO’s eastern flank, particularly in countries such as Hungary where the government’s spotty record on democracy led to a freeze in relations that allowed Russia and China to extend their sway, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said.
Pompeo, in the first visit to Hungary by a U.S. secretary of state since 2011, warned on Monday against the dangers of drifting into Russia’s orbit and called on Hungary to prevent China from creating a “bridgehead” that could leave Budapest indebted “economically and politically.” He said the U.S. would fight for “positive influence” across Eastern Europe.
“We must not let Putin drive wedges between friends in NATO,” Pompeo told reporters before dinner with Prime Minister Viktor Orban. “Hungarians know all too well from their history that an authoritarian Russia will never be a friend to the freedom and sovereignty of smaller nations.”
The message resonated in Hungary, where Orban has viewed Moscow as more of an economic partner than a security threat, unlike many regional peers. The Hungarian leader, who’s become a standard-bearer for nationalists in Europe and regularly meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin, has pledged to expand ties with both Moscow and Beijing while maintaining his country’s place in the European Union and NATO.
Hungary is still a “reliable ally” for the U.S., Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said alongside Pompeo on Monday.
To prove his point, Szijjarto said the wording of a bilateral defense agreement, a U.S. priority which Hungary had delayed signing, would be sent to Parliament for review. He also said Hungary was in talks for the purchase of a medium-range air-defense system from a U.S. arms manufacturer.
Those were the first tangible results from a U-turn in U.S. foreign policy last year under President Donald Trump, which aimed to engage Orban. That followed years of a policy focused on criticizing the erosion of democracy in Hungary under Orban.
During those years, Hungary turned toward Russia, handing it a $12 billion nuclear plant expansion deal. Orban has also been a vocal critic of the economic sanctions meted out against Putin’s government and has blocked Ukraine’s talks with NATO, citing Kiev’s treatment of the ethnic Hungarian community in Ukraine.
Pompeo suggested he believed greater engagement could woo Orban back.
“Too often in the recent past, the United States was absent from Central Europe,” Pompeo said on the first leg of a five-nation trip in Europe that includes Slovakia and Poland. “That’s unacceptable. Our rivals filled those vacuums. Today we reaffirm our determination to compete for positive influence in the region.”
At the same time, Pompeo made clear that the U.S. wouldn’t shy away from targeted criticism, such as on rule-of-law concerns.
Driving home that point, Pompeo’s first meeting in Budapest was with civil society leaders who have been critical of Orban’s consolidation of power, crackdown on dissenting voices and alleged government corruption. The top U.S. diplomat also announced the launch of a program to fund independent local media in Hungary and three other central European countries, particularly for investigative reporting related to possible corruption from Russian and Chinese influence.
“We have every expectation that Hungary will do its part to keep the commitment it made 30 years ago,” Pompeo said. “It is every ally’s responsibility to keep Europe free.”
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