In October, as autumn set in and Russia intensified its bombing of Ukraine's civilian power grid to torment and freeze Ukrainians into submission, the government in neighboring Hungary was mobilizing against an enemy of its own.
On billboards, columns, and fliers, in the news, and on Facebook and other digital platforms, Hungarians everywhere were being blitzed with the image of a bomb stenciled with the word "sanctions" nose-diving menacingly toward the red-white-and-green Hungarian tricolor.
"Sanctions from Brussels are destroying us!" they warned in reference to multiple rounds of EU political and economic deterrents targeting Russia that had passed with the grudging support of Budapest and rare unanimity among the bloc's 26 other members.
The signs were part of a multimillion-dollar, state-funded "national consultation" commissioned by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government to convince 10 million Hungarians that bombs don't kill people, sanctions kill people. Or, at the very least, they pose the greater threat to their security.
Armed with a supermajority that allowed his ruling Fidesz party to reshape Hungarian politics and institutions without opposition oversight since 2010, Orban has spent years packing the public broadcasting sector with allies and enabling like-minded oligarchs and cronies to swallow up nearly all the major commercial stations.
Critics say the resulting media landscape has helped Orban spin the Ukrainian war along twin tracks, portraying EU sanctions and other threats to Hungary's reliance on Russian gas and energy as paramount dangers while numbing millions of Hungarians to the humanitarian and geopolitical catastrophe next door.
An Election Forces Orban's Hand
In February 2022, Orban was looking wobbly. With elections looming and a cost-of-living crisis at a head, polls were hinting at Hungary's first change of government in a dozen years. His traditional preelection handouts and subsidies were straining the budget and fooling almost no one. His well-orchestrated "culture war" was running up against a newly unified opposition whose socially conservative candidate largely neutralized his anti-immigration and anti-LGBT talking points. And his blandishments toward Moscow and Beijing were damaging Budapest's standing among EU and NATO allies.
Against a backdrop of labor unrest among teachers, train engineers, and gas-station attendants, along with other public discontent ahead of April 3 elections, Orban's fortunes arguably rested on keeping public anger atomized and uncoordinated.
"The biggest question of the [campaign] period is whether there will be some kind of uniform, overwhelming dissatisfaction," Andras Biro-Nagy, director of Policy Solutions, a liberal-democracy think tank in Budapest, told RFE/RL's Hungarian Service on February 23. "For the time being, it seems that these dissatisfactions are insular, that the different layers are not uniting with each other."
The very next day, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched Europe's biggest foreign invasion since World War II in a cataclysmic gamble to subdue Ukraine, enrich Russia, and reshape the international order.
Orban responded initially with a stall, emphasizing to state TV channel M1 that the worst thing would be to allow Hungary to get tangled up in the war. "This shouldn’t happen," he said on February 28. "I call this strategic calm. That's what we need now."
Just days after tens of thousands of Russian troops and tanks had rolled unprovoked into Ukraine, he also drove a wedge between Ukrainians and Hungarians, both of whom had spent decades suffering under Moscow's hegemony before the Soviet collapse.
"The next decade will be about who is able to create a safe environment for their own country, for the everyday lives of their own people," Orban said.
Weeks later, in a landmark speech on National Day with less than three weeks to go before the elections, he offered a blinkered interpretation of events in Ukraine.
Orban stressed not Ukrainians' suffering more broadly but the risk specifically to "hundreds of thousands of Hungarians" living in western Ukraine, invoking a local minority population at the center of years of friction between Kyiv and Budapest along with Orban's muted dreams of a Greater Hungary.
Rejecting what he called a pattern of Central Europe as "a chessboard for the world's great powers and Hungary as simply a piece in their game," Orban didn't warn of Russian imperialism but rather equated Russian and Ukrainian "interests" and cautioned against U.S. and EU motives.
"We must represent our own interests -- calmly and courageously," Orban said. "We must stay out of this war! Not a single Hungarian must be caught between the Ukrainian anvil and the Russian sledgehammer."
That sentiment has translated into a rejection of any action -- including military support or the supply of weapons to Ukraine -- that might be interpreted as intervention in the conflict, according to Marton Bene, senior research fellow at the MTA Center for Social Sciences in Budapest's Institute for Political Science. The "prism of the interests of Hungary" has also led Budapest to promote the need for an unqualified end to military hostilities and peace talks, he said.
While acknowledging that Russia is the aggressor, Bene said, the Hungarian government generally "avoids normative evaluations" of the war and frames it as "a conflict between the USA and Russia rather than a pure regional war."
The biggest danger to Hungary, Orban told Hungarians on National Day in an indirect swipe at the opposition's deference to potential NATO defense obligations, would be to "sleepwalk...into a cruel, protracted, and bloody war."
Budapest, he insisted, would not ship weapons to Ukraine as urged by the United States and a number of other influential NATO allies.
Lakmusz (Litmus), a Hungarian fact-checking project, later described Orban's preelection strategy as having "shifted the focus from domestic to geopolitical and security topics while anti-opposition messages were intertwined with pro-Kremlin and anti-Ukrainian narratives, distributed and emphasized by the vast pro-government media ecosystem."
Some of the most obvious examples, Lakmusz said, included misleading assertions of a "false binary between peace and war in relation to the opposition" and vague allegations of a "secret pact" between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the Hungarian left.
Lakmusz noted Orban's public clash with Zelenskiy at an emergency EU summit on March 24, when the Ukrainian president described the war as a showdown over values, called out Orban by name, and challenged Hungary to "once and for all...decide for yourself who you are with." The Hungarian prime minister responded coolly via a government spokesman the next day that Zelenskiy's "demands" were "contrary to the interests of Hungary."
Safely In Power, A Strategy Emerges
On April 3, voters gave Fidesz a surprisingly lopsided victory and another supermajority that gave Orban space to pivot from shaken incredulity at Putin's ruthless gambit to a narrow emphasis on Hungarian economic interests and, especially, the need to keep Russian gas and energy flowing.
Think tank director Biro-Nagy would later say that the "battle to interpret the war in Ukraine shows the power of the Fidesz media empire."
Orban, he said, "won the clash of narratives over the war in Ukraine by portraying himself as the guarantor of peace and security, while accusing...the united opposition of potentially bringing Hungary into war."
And the messaging to Hungarians was still ramping up.
Lakmusz shared a cautionary example that transpired months into the Russian invasion when Europol inadvertently sparked a firestorm of misinformation that followed a typical pattern among Hungarian public media and pro-government outlets.
In July, the European law-enforcement network expressed "full confidence" that its "close" cooperation with Ukrainian officials would help mitigate the kind of "potential threat observed in war zones in the past" of arms trafficking and proliferation. "This threat," Europol added, "might even be higher once the conflict has ended."
Europol's generic warning, along with an ill-advised video highlighting weapons smuggling in the Balkans, was snapped up by Hungarian public and commercial news outlets friendly to Fidesz. An information agency founded by a wealthy chum dubbed "Orban's spin doctor" suggested that Javelin missiles and other Western weaponry essential to Ukraine's defense were already vanishing en route to Ukraine and turning up in the trunks of Albanian cars.
Elsewhere, the report was ginned up further with quotes from a Fidesz-linked security policy expert playing up the potential for "terrorism" (and playing down the possibility that such reports might serve the Russian aggressors' aims). Other reports tossed in Russian speculation about chemical and biological weapons and hinted that Western weapons must be closely tracked or "otherwise they'll be sold by Ukrainians on the black market."
In the end, according to Lakmusz, a preemptive warning from Europol had been transformed to undermine Ukraine's defense and "spread throughout the entire Mediaworks press empire," which critics havelong accused of operating in lockstep with Fidesz.
As war in Ukraine raged on, multiple analysts have described the Orban government's increasing reliance on a depiction of "Brussels" badly mishandling the response to Putin's war -- particularly through its insistence on boycotts of Russian gas and energy, albeit with exceptions for Budapest.
Research fellow Bene called it a shift in "enemy construction."
Agnes Urban, an infocommunications professor at Budapest's Corvinus University and managing director of the independent Mertek Media Monitor, recently described "a completely new narrative" that emerged to fill the public-broadcast news with reports on the energy shortage and price increases as sanctions and countersanctions impede flows of Russian gas and other energy supplies to the West.
She said public broadcasters have avoided "legitimizing the war" or echoing Russian media's reporting of developments on the battlefield. From that perspective, she said, "it is relatively fair reporting."
"But from the point of view of the energy crisis, they really follow the Kremlin approach," Urban said. "In pro-government media, there are no national-security issues, there is no risk in following pro-Russian policies; the only important story is energy security."
An Imperfect 'Bubble'
"Since the beginning of the war," said Blanka Zoldi, editor in chief of Lakmusz, "we have seen that pro-Russian messages originate from the highest level of Hungary's political elite, which are then echoed by a centralized media ecosystem, including the public media, pro-government outlets, and influencers on social media -- in many cases, spreading false or misleading information, supported by state advertisement and public money (and through advertisements, also benefiting tech companies such as Facebook and Google)."
Urban's Mertek Media Monitor is also preparing a news-consumption survey that's due out in February, with more insight expected into the pro-Fidesz media machine's effect on Hungarians' views of the war.
She said Hungarian media and society are "completely polarized" as a result of "very controlled communication from the government" and its media allies.
"Of course, there is a part of society who follow pro-Western communication, but their voice is rather limited," Urban said. "I mean, even if many of them are opinion leaders, they cannot compete with this pro-Fidesz media empire."
National-security issues and NATO unity are a frequent topic of conversation among independent media, Urban said, including "what it means for Hungary to be the least reliable member of the Western alliance and what kind of risks it means for Hungary in the long run."
Those discussions frequently invoke the argument that Hungary has frequently been on the wrong side of major geopolitical developments in the past century.
"I think solidarity [with Ukraine] and the humanitarian aspect were not so relevant among Fidesz voters," Urban said, "and it's not because the Fidesz voters have no feelings or they accept the torture or killing of civilians, but rather because they [think the war is] at least partly the fault of the Ukrainian people and Russia's step is somehow understandable because NATO is approaching its borders."
That perspective flows easily, she said, into a "comfortable" message of "support for peace" irrespective of which side it might benefit in the longer term. "But I don't think they are in a very perfect bubble," Urban said.
She cited recent signs of a wrinkle in the Fidesz narrative when Hungarian President Katalin Novak, a staunch Orban ally whose ascendancy was achieved implementing some of Fidesz's most socially conservative reforms as family minister, traveled to Kyiv in November.
Novak met with Zelenskiy, risking backlash by being seen to lend Hungarian support to a frequent target of Orban's ire. Her office played up the trip as a mission to support ethnic Hungarians in Ukrainian Transcarpathia and work out technical aspects of humanitarian shipments.
But comments on Novak's official Facebook page revealed a minor rift among Fidesz supporters. Some accused the president of betraying the government line on the war, while others dismissed the trip as a potential misstep but one clearly guided by humanitarian interests and particularly concern for the Transcarpathian ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine.
Urban noted that independent news portals seized on the spat and mostly regarded it cynically as a "good guy, bad guy" tactic in which Novak might be appearing more pro-Ukrainian or pro-Western to relieve some of the domestic and international pressure on Orban's government.
She suggested that "to be the 'good cop' is always somehow more acceptable for the woman, even in the Fidesz bubble."
"But on the other hand, of course, the government follows more pro-Russian foreign politics," she said.