Western unity is more essential than ever

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine has made the West — in this context, NATO and the European Union — more united than it’s been in a long time. Unfortunately, that cohesion is now at risk, as the Russian invasion turns into a grinding war of attrition. To deter Putin from escalating and to keep him from winning, Western leaders must focus on the two weakest links in their alliance: Turkey and Hungary.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey — a member of NATO but not the EU — says he will block the accession of Sweden and Finland to the transatlantic alliance unless he’s given a series of unrelated concessions. If he actually follows through, he would not only leave both countries more vulnerable to Russian aggression, but also render NATO weaker. Gratuitously, Erdogan is also increasing tensions with Greece, another NATO ally.


Then there’s Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. For weeks, he’s been holding up a sanctions package that would embargo Russian oil. EU leaders last week thought they had finally reached a compromise: Only Russian oil delivered by ship would be banned, whereas the sort arriving via pipelines would not. That would give landlocked Hungary, as well as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, more time to adjust their energy infrastructure.

In a shocking breach of decorum, Orban then reneged on even that compromise. Bizarrely, he also insisted on keeping the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Kirill — a staunch backer of Putin and the war — off the new sanctions list. The EU gave in to this demand, too, to get the package passed.

The whole ordeal was an embarrassment, and a rare cause for Putin to be optimistic. In every way he can, Orban is signaling that he’s not fully behind the West’s joint effort to support Ukraine and undermine Russia.

So what can be done? A basic design flaw shared by both the EU and NATO is that neither has a mechanism to eject errant members. That means both will need to get creative in reining in rogue leaders.

In Erdogan’s case, acceding to blackmail shouldn’t be an option. The US should announce that future arms sales to Turkey will be halted until it comes around on the new accessions. NATO should threaten to suspend Turkish involvement in military planning and exercises. Revisiting the alliance’s rules to allow for expulsions should be on the table.

As for Orban, the EU will need to adopt a similarly hard line. In 2018, the bloc triggered its treaty’s Article 7 against Hungary in a censure of its subversion of democratic institutions, launching a process that could in theory strip Budapest of its voting rights in Brussels. In practice, the measure has been toothless, because it requires unanimous support. Poland always had Hungary’s back.

These days, however, Poland is among the member states that are most hawkishly anti-Putin. Belatedly, the Poles have come to understand that a strong EU is in their national interest. They should persuade Orban to join the effort to weaken Putin’s war machine and strengthen Ukraine. If he doesn’t, the other 26 EU countries should strip Hungary of its votes.

Holding together the Western alliance has never been easy. Amid a worsening war on its doorstep, it has rarely seemed more necessary. The time for populist political games is over.

— Bloomberg Opinion

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