Swedish Premier Visits Hungary in Effort to Lift Roadblock to NATO Membership

In an effort to remove a final obstacle blocking his country’s admission to NATO, the prime minister of Sweden traveled to Hungary on Friday for talks that his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban, said would smooth the Nordic nation’s entry into the military alliance and commit it to a “military-industrial and military agreement” with Hungary.

Hungary, the last holdout on NATO expansion, has been stalling for 19 months on ratifying Sweden’s admission, a delay that has puzzled and dismayed the United States and other members of the military alliance.

The visit to Budapest, the Hungarian capital, by the Swedish leader, Ulf Kristersson, reversed his earlier position that he was ready to travel to meet Mr. Orban, but only after the Hungarian Parliament had voted to approve his country’s NATO membership. That vote is now expected on Monday when Parliament, in which Mr. Orban’s governing Fidesz party has a large majority that invariably follows the prime minister’s instructions, reconvenes after a winter break.

Hungary has given differing explanations for its foot-dragging. Speaking in a radio interview shortly before Mr. Kristersson’s arrival in Budapest, Mr. Orban added a twist to the saga, linking Sweden’s NATO admission to the resolution of what he described as “pending military and armament issues” between the countries.

Swedish-made Gripen warplanes, provided to Hungary under a lease agreement, form the backbone of the small East European nation’s air force, and pro-government news outlets in Hungary have reported that Mr. Orban has been pushing for a better deal.

“This process will be concluded today in Budapest,” Mr. Orban said Friday morning on Kossuth Radio. “We will conclude a military industrial and military agreement, a serious one considering the size of our country, and we will also lay down some directions and goals for military cooperation.”

A deal on military cooperation, Mr. Orban said, was part of “a confidence-building process” between the two countries that would help persuade Fidesz lawmakers that “it is worth supporting Sweden’s accession.”

As Mr. Kristersson arrived in Budapest, Saab, the maker of Gripen warplanes, announced that it had signed a contract with the Swedish state to deliver four additional fighters to Hungary. That will bring the number of Swedish-made warplanes used by the country to 18. No financial terms were disclosed.

Some diplomats and analysts, however, see Mr. Orban’s claims about an important deal with Sweden on military cooperation as face-saving way out of an impasse that critics say has severely damaged Hungary’s reputation as a reliable ally and secured no clear benefits in return.

The most tangible benefit for Hungary, or at least Mr. Orban, has been all the attention given to a nation that otherwise has little military, diplomatic or economic clout. It accounts for only 1 percent of the European Union’s economic output and has a military with about 40,000 active-duty members, about the size of New York City’s police force.

Hungary became the final obstacle to Sweden’s NATO admission after Turkey’s Parliament voted last month to approve it. After the Turkish vote left Hungary standing alone, Mr. Orban assured the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, that the “Hungarian government supports” Sweden’s membership and would get Parliament to act “at the first possible opportunity.” But when opposition legislators called a session of Parliament early this month to vote on Sweden’s entry, Fidesz boycotted the session.

Military cooperation has only recently appeared as an explanation for Hungary’s failure to honor its repeated promises not to be the last country to ratify Sweden’s membership. It earlier cited Swedish accusations of democratic backsliding in Hungary under Mr. Orban, teaching materials critical of Hungary in Swedish schools and comments that Mr. Kristersson had made years before taking office.

Sweden’s membership has also become entangled in Mr. Orban’s frosty relations with the Biden administration, which strongly supports Sweden’s bid to join the alliance, and with the Hungarian leader’s opposition to Washington’s policy of supporting Ukraine with weapons. “We would very much like to see President Trump return to the White House and make peace here in the eastern half of Europe,” Mr. Orban said last Saturday in his annual state of the nation address.

A bipartisan delegation of United States senators that visited Budapest last weekend to press Hungary to ratify Sweden as a NATO member received a cold shoulder, as Hungarian ministers and legislators from Fidesz all declined to meet with them. In a message posted on social media, Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, said the country would not be swayed by foreign delegations. “It is not worth it for visiting American senators to try to exert pressure,” he said.

In a sign of growing frustration, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, this month called Mr. Orban “the least reliable member of NATO” and raised the possibility of imposing sanctions on Hungary for blocking the expansion of the alliance.

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