Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico met with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal on January 24, 2024, in Uzhgorod. Ahead of this visit, Fico made several unfriendly statements towards Ukraine. He referred to Ukraine as a nation under the "absolute influence of the USA" and suggested the necessity for Ukraine to cede part of its territory to Russia as a purported solution to the war. Fico also expressed opposition to Ukraine joining NATO, asserting it would be the foundation of the third world war. Additionally, he claimed that the West supposedly prevented the Ukrainian political leadership from establishing a truce with Russia at the onset of the full-scale invasion, anticipating that by supplying Ukraine with billions and weapons, it would present a wounded Russian bear. This rhetoric mirrors that of his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orbán, and resonates with key messages from Russian propaganda. We grasp the implications of these European politicians' statements playing into the hands of enemy agitprop and how propagandists interpret the words of the Slovak and Hungarian prime ministers.
Historically, the Hungarians have had some disputes with the Slovaks, starting with the Treaty of Trianon, which established the borders of modern Hungary after the First World War. The redistribution of borders left large Hungarian minorities in many surrounding states, including in the newly created Czechoslovakia. After World War II, thousands of Hungarians were deported from Czechoslovakia for collaborating with the Germans. But even after the "velvet divorce", that is, the separation and formation of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, many Hungarians still live in the south of the latter. Currently, 422,000 ethnic Hungarians live in Slovakia with a population of more than 5 million (there is a tendency to decrease the number of this minority — in 1991, more than half a million Hungarians lived in Slovakia). So in the 2000s, the two prime ministers repeatedly clashed over some issues related to the Hungarian minority in Slovakia. In 2009, Bratislava adopted a language law, the main purpose of which was to strengthen and protect the position of the Slovak language in various spheres of public life, in particular in administration, education, mass media, and public services. However, according to Hungary, the provisions of the law had a disproportionate impact on minorities, especially Hungarian (at that time, 10% of the population in Slovakia spoke Hungarian), because it provided for a fine of up to 5,000 euros for using the languages of national minorities in state structures. In 2010, Orbán gave the 2.5 million ethnic Hungarians living outside their homeland the right to obtain a Hungarian passport, thus fueling nostalgia for Greater Hungary. In response, Fico's government obliged Slovaks to report their acquisition of dual citizenship under the threat of a fine of more than $4,000 and the loss of their Slovak passport. In addition, Viktor Orbán likes to impress with a scarf with the image of Great Hungary, on which the territory of Slovakia is its territory. However, in recent times, politicians seem to have left such differences behind.
When Eurosceptics relinquished power in Poland, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán discovered a new ally in his Slovak counterpart, who returned to politics in the fall of 2023. Slovakia, alongside Hungary, forms a tandem of "recalcitrant states" within the European Union. This alliance aims to assist Orbán in thwarting potential efforts to strip Hungary of its EU voting rights due to perceived systemic threats to European values and the obstruction of aid to Ukraine. The prime ministers share a commitment to opposing Brussels and pursuing policies favorable to Moscow. In January 2024, the European Parliament endorsed a call to penalize Orbán for perceived damage to democracy, taking steps toward suspending Budapest's EU voting rights. Simultaneously, MEPs passed a resolution condemning changes to Slovakia's Criminal Code. The two state leaders convened in Budapest on January 20, 2024, ahead of the February extraordinary summit of the European Union, where amendments to the multi-year budget for 2024-2027, including the establishment of a €50 billion Ukrainian fund, were to be approved. It is anticipated that their alliance will actively resist pro-Ukrainian initiatives within the European Union, potentially harming Kyiv and aligning with Kremlin interests. Previously, Fico, in tandem with Orbán, supported the blockade of funding for Ukraine, asserting that the EU should not finance the planned €50 billion aid package for Ukraine from the joint budget, and emphasizing that the conflict cannot be resolved through military means. We have compiled several quotes from Robert Fico echoing Viktor Orbán's statements and aligning with Kremlin propaganda messages, covering Ukraine's geopolitical trajectory, its aspirations to join the EU and NATO, the conduct and outcomes of the war, as well as Western support.
"Ukraine's victory is unrealistic"
Russian agitprop is trying to discourage Ukrainians from resisting and sow disbelief in their own victory. If we follow the logic of the propagandists, then the further defense and counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine are pointless, combat actions lead only to losses, and neither side advances. Russia will never leave the captured territories, so it is worth retreating today and not wasting resources on a meaningless struggle.
Viktor Orbán: On each side, there are a hundred thousand dead soldiers, and no one will move forward. The Russians will continue their military control over Donetsk and Luhansk. Of course, they will not leave Crimea, but Russia's position in the negotiations will improve.
Robert Fico: Why do they [Ukrainians] expect the Russians to leave Crimea, Donbas, and Luhansk? It is not real.
In response to Fico's statements, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Oleg Nikolenko, once again underscored that Ukraine will not entertain territorial concessions: "There can be no compromise on territorial integrity, not by Ukraine, not by Slovakia, nor by any other country."
According to a survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, three-quarters of Ukrainian citizens firmly believe that there should be no territorial concessions to Russia. "Even among those who may be generally open to concessions, the majority express confidence in Ukraine's success under the condition of proper support from the West. This sentiment reflects the heartfelt appeal of ordinary Ukrainians, urging Western partners not to delay their assistance," notes the sociological study.
"Why bother assisting Ukraine if Russia is bound to victory anyway?"
Another deceptive tactic in propaganda involves fostering a sense of unavoidable defeat, suggesting that if Russia is guaranteed victory, supporting Ukraine becomes futile. Such messaging aims to dissuade allies from backing anti-Russian resistance and bolsters the portrayal of Russia as an influential geopolitical force that never truly loses, only experiencing temporary setbacks before reclaiming strength.
Viktor Orbán: Where we are now, it's obvious that the Ukrainians will not win on the frontline. There is no solution on the battleground. Russians will not lose. There will be no political change in Moscow. This is the reality.
Robert Fico: We can pour all the weapons of the world into it, all the money, and Russia will never be defeated militarily. The turn of 2023 and 2024 will come, and you will see that Russia will begin to dictate the terms of the settlement of this conflict.
Financial Times analysts examined the potential outcomes of a hypothetical Russian triumph, foreseeing widespread terror against Ukrainians, destruction of civilian populations, intensified repression against partisan resistance, and a resultant surge in refugees with no place to return to under occupation. This scenario would also compromise regional security, as Putin might exploit the situation to test NATO's collective security clause, outlined in Article Five of the 1949 Washington Treaty, by potentially targeting the Baltic states. Furthermore, Putin's actions could embolden aggression in other nations, including Venezuela, China, and Azerbaijan. Additionally, as Putin controls a significant portion of the world's wheat exports, this could trigger a severe food crisis.
During the EU summit on October 26, 2023, countries urged the leaders of Hungary and Slovakia, who opposed further military support for Ukraine, to carefully consider the consequences of their stance.
"The European strategy towards Ukraine and Russia has failed"
Part of the propaganda "discourse of despair" is the message about the EU's failed strategy towards Ukraine and Russia. Europeans are very sympathetic to Kyiv, but this does not benefit it, and Moscow is too strict, however, the sanctions imposed by the European Union hit Western economies more than the Russian one. So if the sanctions are ineffective, they should be removed.
Viktor Orbán: “Today everybody knows but they do not dare to say it out loud, that this strategy has failed. It’s obvious that this will not work... the Ukrainians will not win on the front line.” In addition, the politician regularly criticizes sanctions against Russia, stressing that they will not change the war. “There’s a debate over whether Russia won or lost. If we talk in terms of money, we can’t say that Russia lost too much,” he told.
Robert Fico: “Ukraine needs to be helped, but I would argue that the help is being given in a way that has no effect. We are currently paying (Ukraine. — ed.) 1.5 billion euros per month from the European Union. We are imposing sanctions on the Russians... How long should this last?” He also made populist statements that he would not vote for sanctions against Russia without assessing the effect of sanctions on the countries of the European Union: "To make it clear, I won’t vote for any sanctions against Russia unless we have analysis of their impact on Slovakia on the table."
EUvsDisinfo experts, a project affiliated with the East StratCom working group of the European External Action Service, adeptly illustrate how agitprop manipulates the discourse on sanctions and substantiate that the restrictions implemented by EU countries yield effective outcomes. “Sanctions have already hindered (opens in a new tab)Russia’s ability to produce weapons that require Western-made components. The Russian state budget has lost trillions of roubles(opens in a new tab) due to restrictive measures in trade which have hit oil and gas revenues, the two main pillars of the Russian economy. Removing sanctions now would immensely benefit the Kremlin. That is why its disinformation network produces lies and conspiracies with the goal of sowing discord and giving the impression that sanctions are ineffective,” reads the report.
NATO came to the "door" of Russia, and not the other way around, so Moscow should not be blamed for behaving aggressively - this was the manipulation expressed by Putin on the eve of a full-scale invasion. That is why, according to the logic of the Kremlin, Ukraine should be a "neutral" state, which must definitely abandon plans to join the Alliance, because they seem to provoke Russia and endanger the security situation in the region and the world.
"Ukraine should refuse to join NATO"
NATO came to the "door" of Russia, and not the other way around, so Moscow should not be blamed for behaving aggressively – this was the manipulation expressed by Putin on the eve of a full-scale invasion. That is why, according to the logic of the Kremlin, Ukraine should be a "neutral" state, which must definitely abandon plans to join the Alliance, because they seem to provoke Russia and endanger the security situation in the region and the world.
Viktor Orbán: We should make a deal with the Russians on the new security architecture to provide security and sovereignty for Ukraine but not membership in NATO.
Robert Fico: I am against the membership of Ukraine in NATO and that I will veto it. If Ukraine were in NATO, some conflicts will be constantly instigated there, and once a clash happens between Russia and a NATO member state, we will have a world war.
Russia's assault on Ukraine disrupts the security order in the region and globally, yet in the distorted world of Russian agitprop, the narrative is inverted. The Kremlin's grievances about NATO expansion serve as a cover for Russian revanchism. While Russia claimed that Ukraine's NATO aspirations prompted preemptive invasions in 2014 and 2022, the actual accession of neighboring Finland evoked a much milder reaction. We delved into this topic in more detail here.
"Ukraine does not meet the criteria for joining the EU"
Another propaganda ploy attempts to persuade Ukrainians and the global community that Ukraine doesn't belong in the EU and will never fulfill the Copenhagen criteria or any other benchmarks of a European state. This messaging aims to instill doubt among ordinary Ukrainians about the feasibility of European integration, suggesting that the path to membership is so arduous and lengthy that achieving it seems unrealistic. Propaganda also directs these messages toward residents of EU countries, implying that Kyiv is incapable of fully meeting European requirements, thereby questioning Ukraine's EU membership prospects.
Viktor Orbán: There are some preconditions. When the candidates fulfill them, let's start membership negotiations. But they were not fulfilled even according to the assessment of the commission. So we are not in a position to start negotiations.
Robert Fico: It's inconceivable for a country that doesn't meet any requirements to join the EU.
In December 2023, an agreement was reached to initiate negotiations on Ukraine's EU accession. For this, Ukraine must undertake seven reforms and progress through four stages: screening of Ukrainian legislation, formulation of the negotiating framework, the European Commission's report on Ukraine meeting the requirements to start negotiations (the same 7-step reforms), and the convening of the Intergovernmental Conference to kick off negotiations. Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal states that Ukraine has completed three of the four additional EU recommendations, focusing on fortifying institutions and aligning laws with European standards. European Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi has affirmed that Ukraine has met 2 of the 7 mentioned priorities. While the journey is lengthy and challenging, Ukraine is actively implementing consistent and systemic reforms, even amid wartime conditions, viewing gradual European integration as the key to eventual EU membership.
"Providing military support to Ukraine is risky"
In various forms, Russian propaganda discourages the idea of offering military assistance to Ukraine. A key assertion is that supplying weapons to Ukraine merely extends the conflict without bringing it to a resolution. Therefore, the argument goes, if global peace is the goal, there should be a refusal to arm Ukraine. Additionally, propagandists frequently employ manipulative tactics, suggesting that governments prioritize Ukraine's needs over their own national interests.
Viktor Orbán: The Hungarian military lacks any surplus weaponry that can be spared. As a result, providing weapons to Ukraine is not feasible, and we are not inclined to pursue such an option.
Robert Fico: I will support zero military aid to Ukraine … An immediate halt to military operations is the best solution we have for Ukraine. The EU should change from an arms supplier to a peacemaker.
Expressions suggesting that Western nations should reserve weapons for their own requirements instead of supplying them to Ukraine might find understanding in the local context. Consequently, Orban's remarks may be met with sympathy in other countries, posing a threat to Kyiv's interests. The case of Slovakia, which initially provided arms to Ukraine equivalent to 10% of its defense budget but later entirely ceased military support to Kyiv, serves as a detrimental precedent.
Ukraine's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, underscored that Ukraine is determined not to capitulate and is prepared to fight even with shovels if weaponry becomes scarce. However, he emphasized that a potential defeat in this war would carry a much higher cost for the world than assisting Ukrainians. Kuleba also reiterated the importance of establishing a common space for European defense industries and a European defense hub in Ukraine to contribute to victory.
"Ukraine is a pawn of the USA"
Russian propaganda consistently presents the US as the puppeteer of Ukraine, depicting the country's role as complying with the desires of "Uncle Sam," specifically to confront Russia at any expense. According to the agitprop narrative, Ukraine is not an independent state but merely a subject of influence by the United States, implying that any geopolitical or internal political decisions by Kyiv merely mirror Washington's interests.
Viktor Orbán: Ukraine can fight as long as the US supports it with money and weapons. If Americans want peace, there will be peace.
Robert Fico: At least since 2014, since the Maidan, it (Ukraine. — ed.) has been under the total influence and control of the USA.
Such narratives diminish Ukraine's status as an independent player in international affairs, depicting it as a militarized extension of the United States, seemingly engaged in a proxy war against Russia at the behest of Washington. This rhetoric also fuels anti-American sentiments among certain biased audiences, framing the US as a warmonger rather than an ally supporting another ally. By portraying Ukraine as a pawn of the US, agitprop utilizes mirroring tactics, aiming to divert attention from its own role as a puppet master in quasi-state entities like Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Transnistria.
Propaganda "stroking against the grain" strategy
Russian propaganda is both praising and criticizing Fico and Orbán. Despite tensions with Ukraine, Hungary provides non-military aid, and Ukrainian military personnel receive medical treatment in Hungary. Despite disputes with Western leadership, Orban has not shown any intention of leaving the European Union or NATO, as highlighted by one propaganda source. Slovak policies are accused of refusing weapons supply to Ukraine, yet Slovakia maintains its status as a transit country for Western equipment entering Ukraine.
In some instances, Russian agitprop lauds Fico's policies: "That is, ladies and gentlemen, it is still possible... Orbán and Fico can present a point of view that is so different from the Polish one, and at the same time bordering Ukraine as members of the EU and NATO."
Putin characterized Orbán and Fico as "pro-nationalist" rather than pro-Russian politicians, claiming they protect national interests in the face of great dependence on the United States.
Given Fico's anti-immigration rhetoric, pro-Russian sympathies, and the crisis in the country's judicial system, there is a real danger of a rapprochement between Budapest and Bratislava. For example, Garvan Walshe, formerly a foreign policy advisor to the British Conservative Party, now a visiting fellow at the CEU Democracy Institute in Budapest, believes that in this way Fico and Orbán are trying to show that they are not alone in their defiance of Europe.
But Fico leads a fragile coalition government, so he has to balance between various conflicting positions. At the EU summit in December 2023, Fico ultimately did not support Orbán's critical stance on Ukraine's EU membership, but nevertheless supported Ukraine. According to Tomas Strazay, director of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association think tank in Bratislava, this may indicate some pragmatism of Fico: yes, he shares some of Orbán's positions, in particular the rejection of the EU migration pact, but in practice he is rather "calmer" towards EU policy than he might appear from some of his public statements. After all, it was under his leadership that Slovakia entered the European Union in 2009, and Fico himself assessed Slovakia's entry into the European Union as a "success story."