Viktor Orbán comes under Nato scrutiny over purge of Hungarian military’s top brass

Colonel István Juhász served more than 36 years in the Hungarian military, including several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and culminating with a job leading his country’s mission to Nato’s warfare development centre in the US.

So when Prime Minister Viktor Orbán launched a purge of the top brass, Juhász had reason to think he would be spared. He and hundreds of others were wrong. Come March, they will be unemployed.

“Everything is over,” he said at the end of a video recounting his decades in the military on his Facebook page. “I have become too old.”

The law adopted by the Orbán government allowing the defence minister to sack anyone over 45 has raised eyebrows among Nato allies, as it potentially decimates a generation that spent most of its career within the military alliance.

Juhász, like other affected military leaders contacted by the Financial Times, would not discuss the government decision. But the ranks were stunned by the speed and ruthlessness of the process, according to military insiders, even as they acknowledge that reform of the bloated senior ranks was overdue.

According to a 2017 tally by the National University of Public Service, officers comprised 23 per cent of a total of about 24,000 soldiers. By comparison, officers make up about 18 per cent in the US armed forces, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Opposition politicians decried the move as politically motivated, alleging that Orbán is seeking to staff his upper ranks with loyalists who share his pro-Russia views.

Hungarian opposition MP Ágnes Vadai, a former junior defence minister, said the move would “destabilise the military’s morale”, noting that many of the sacked officers “learnt the ropes within Nato”. “Their connections have often helped to counterbalance the bad taste left by Orbán’s politics in Nato and the EU’s military establishment,” she said. “Their departure is a huge setback.”

Petr Pavel, the former Nato general who was elected the new Czech president at the weekend, described the military purge as a “continuation” of Orbán’s “restrictions on all those who had a different view”.

Under Orbán, Hungary has refused to send military aid to Ukraine, criticised and watered down western sanctions on Russia, and even held hostage EU financial aid for Ukraine as it sought to secure its own funding from Brussels in exchange.

Ágnes Vadai
Opposition politician Ágnes Vadai said the move would ‘destabilise the military’s morale’ © Noemi Bruzak/EPA-EFE

While the government went on frequent tirades against “Brussels” and publicly contradicted Nato policy on sanctions and the need to defeat Russia on the battlefield, the country’s military quietly did its job inside the alliance, earning respect for leading its peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia and participating in deployments around the world.

“This is serious, not silly,” said a senior military figure from a Nato state of Orbán’s purge. “But the tricky issue for Nato is that we can’t go around telling governments who they can and can’t pick to be generals.”

Nato declined to comment on the Hungarian move.

In the past, however, Nato officials routinely defended the country’s commitment to the alliance regardless of Orbán’s political rhetoric, underscoring that Budapest’s representatives to the military alliance rarely speak out to challenge its pro-Ukraine, anti-Russian objectives.

Hungarian defence minister Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky denied political motives and said the government held no “hidden agendas”, telling Bloomberg that he wanted to “introduce meritocracy and competition in the defence forces”.

The cull was aimed at the top ranks, the minister explained, but the government still wanted to beef up the lower ranks, which currently struggle even to reach the legal personnel ceiling of 37,000.

Orbán at a Nato summit last year
Orbán at a Nato summit last year © Bernd von Jutrczenka/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Péter Wagner, a defence policy expert at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade, a government think-tank based in Budapest, said even if Orbán wanted to purge pro-Nato officers in favour of pro-Russian ones he would not succeed as the younger generation was just as Atlanticist as the one that was dismissed.

“The decapitation affected the strategic, bureaucratic level first,” Wagner said. “The military will benefit from that downsizing.”

For the first time since joining Nato in 1999, Hungary this year is set to meet the alliance’s defence spending target of 2 per cent of gross domestic product, he noted. A third of that budget is aimed at modernising the country’s forces.

But to retired army general József Forgó, the government’s cull of the top brass does little in the way of fixing of the military’s systemic problems.

“Without personnel, who will operate the equipment? Our human supply chain collapses every 15 years or so,” he noted. “That’s what happens again now.”

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