John O’Sullivan runs the Danube Institute in Budapest, Hungary. From this vantage point (Hungary shares a common border with Ukraine), he has special insights on the conflict across the border in Ukraine and on the use of statecraft to find a resolution to the conflict. 

To view the full transcript of this episode, read below:

Andrew Roberts: This is a special edition of Secrets of State Craft with Andrew Roberts. I'm currently in Budapest as a visiting fellow of the Danube Institute, which is run by John O'Sullivan. And in the light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I thought listeners will be interested in seeing the crisis from a central European perspective. So here's my conversation with John O'Sullivan.

Andrew Roberts: Ladies and gentlemen, I'm very fortunate to be here in Budapest with John O'Sullivan, the editor of six magazines in his  career, including 10 years as editor-in-chief of National Review, but also editor of National Interest and Quadrant in Australia. An advisor to Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street, he's presently the president of the Danube Institute, an atlanticist think tank that is conservative in politics and classically liberal in economics. He's been a voice for expanding NATO for many, many years and the former executive editor of Radio Free Europe. So there's one question really, which overrides everything else today, which is of course the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And John will be able to give us a look into the way in which Hungarians are thinking about this and especially the Hungarian government to which he's close. So John tell us what's the feeling here in Hungary?

John O’Sullivan: I would say the principle feeling is anxiety everybody in the region, not just in Hungary, but even the Pols who are the most active and almost self confident in the way they're dealing with the situation. Everybody in the region is conscious that this is an area over which tanks from other parts of the world are rolled regularly before that horses. And they just feel in their bones that there's always a danger when there is any kind of conflict that it's going to involve a terrible destruction in this part of the world. Now in Hungary in particular, I don't think people outside the historical profession or the country realize just how terrible the siege of Budapest was in the beginning of 1945. It lasted three months and it was a terrible event for the country. Of course, the country suffered dreadfully as a whole from the end of the war until really late '44. It didn't experience the war to any great extent and then of course it felt the full force of it.

John O’Sullivan: So people remember that here and they remember how small countries on these occasions suddenly become pawns and their interests don't count. And so that's the principle feeling. Now, there are a lot of other feelings, which I would say the main one is that they would... The Hungarians have made a decision very clearly that they're members of NATO and that's very important to them. And in this crisis, they have far from, in a sense being obstructive, they have made it plain that they would go along with whatever the majority or the unanimous opinion of NATO was. And that's very important for them, I think, to establish that. At the same time, they haven't wanted to go out of their way to be anti Russian, to be anti-Putin, because the feeling of vulnerability they have. They, after all, they share a border with Ukraine.

Andrew Roberts: And also they're vulnerable in terms of oil and gas, aren't they? Specifically gas to an extraordinary degree.

John O’Sullivan: They're vulnerable in terms of energy and in both gas supplies and in terms of nuclear energy. They are vulnerable to Russia because it is Russia, which has provided some of the finance and the expertise for modernizing one of their major power stations packs. So there is the conscious of... They are conscious of being to that extent vulnerable to Russia and the present prime minister, Viktor Orbán has gone out of his way to say that he would like to preserve as far as possible, the economic relations, trade relations with Russia, but he's in the end, he's always subordinated them that interest to NATO's interests and the unanimity of NATO.

Andrew Roberts: And with regard to this great issue of arms being taken across the Hungarian border into Ukraine, NATO arms, he has said he doesn't want that to happen. He's been criticized very roundly in the west for that, but it strikes me speaking to a member of the Hungarian government just earlier today that they do have an argument, don't they? In that if the Russians essentially counteract, it would be Hungarian people in south, ethnic Hungarians, at least in Zakarpattia who would bear the brunt of that.

John O’Sullivan: Yes. They are concerned about that and the same prime minister at an earlier stage, of course, did refuse the Russians, the ability to transit through Hungary back in the Balkan wars. And at that time, that was a fairly bold thing to do. Now, I would say myself that the Hungarian... He does represent public opinion in not wanting to go far as far as the Pols have done.

Andrew Roberts: And this is, sorry to bat in, but this is interesting historically, isn't it? Because Hungary was invaded by Russia in 1956. The Pols didn't have the same equivalent until Gdansk in the early 1980s of that kind of way in which you are maltreated like the Czechs did, of course, in 1968. So in a sense, it is interesting that the Hungarians are being so much more pragmatic than the Pols.

John O’Sullivan: Well, you may remember in 1956, the joke that went round Europe about the different attitudes of the Soviet satellites was that the Hungarians had behaved like Pols, the Pols had behaved like Czechs and the Czechs had behaved like swine because of course the Czechs were the most subservient at that stage. They changed their minds very dramatically 12 years later, but at that stage, they were the most subservient of the satellites to Russia. So in a sense, people change their attitudes because of changing circumstances and because their interests dictate that the, well, in the case of Hungary, it wants very much to be part of the west. It is absolutely determined to stay in the NATO camp, but it will not be pressing as hard as the Pols for it aid to Ukraine. And that's-

Andrew Roberts: Lethal.

John O’Sullivan: Lethal aid. Yes. And by the way, they have of course done a great deal and are doing a great deal to bring in refugees, so.

Andrew Roberts: And giving humanitarian aids.

John O’Sullivan: Oh yeah, that's right. People have been brought in. I mean, I know people here in Budapest who've arranged to look after a family coming over the border from Ukraine. And I think we do not really recognize the nervousness that a lot of this crisis creates. I mentioned in particular... I'll mention one point in particular. There is great anxiety and maybe you discussed this with the Hungarian friend you were talking about a moment ago, great anxiety about borders being changed by force or even more borders being changed without universal agreement to change borders. And the reason is that it still remains a part of the world in which it was set at the time of the first war that every England has its island and every island has its Ulster. And so people just don't want that Pandora's box to be opened again.

Andrew Roberts: No. But even though Hungary of course was the biggest loser in terms of territory, the Treaty of Trianon essentially ripped Hungary to pieces. And so though that's the reason, of course it's Trianon, isn't it? That these 150,000 or Hungarians are in Zakarpattia in Ukraine rather than in Hungary.

John O’Sullivan: That is right. And last year was the 100th anniversary of Trianon and it was celebrated very mournfully, but celebrated so to speak here in Hungary. But at the same time, the Hungarian government I think made it plain to the Romanian government, which is the, so to speak, principle antagonist historically on this question that they did not want to make it in any way a rivashast occasion.

Andrew Roberts: No.

John O’Sullivan: That they were accepting entirely the status quo.

Andrew Roberts: Is there any irredentism in some Zakarpattia?

John O’Sullivan: I couldn't talk to that particular point very confidently, but there is some irredentism in Hungarian society. The problem, if you are in a Hungarian minority in Slovakia or Romania or anywhere else is that you do not want to create difficulties for your own community if you hold those kind of opinions. And most of the Hungarian parties or ethnic parties in this part of the world, they outside of Hungary tend to be quite well Pacific to represent the interests culturally of the constituents, but not to want to go beyond that to make historical changes.

Andrew Roberts: Which makes perfect sense for them. You, as I mentioned earlier, were executive editor of Radio Free Europe. In a sense you must have been all the time that you were working for Radio Free Europe and you must have been thinking about out the possible danger of Russia either invading Ukraine or actually invading a NATO country. Were you expecting this? Were you assuming that it was one day going to happen or do you think that Putin has made the most appalling state by doing it?

John O’Sullivan: Well, I joined RFEL in the end of 2007. And even when I joined it, all my colleagues were telling me about the way in which the Radio Liberty, the Russian service was finding it life more and more difficult. They were, for example, a lot of the constituent radio stations which took our material were finding that the food inspector would come in, see a half eaten sandwich and immediately declare 100,000 ruble fine or whatever for and that kind of thing. And it worse than that, people being taken for a car ride and threatened. Now, that was the beginning and it ratcheted it up very considerably in 2008.

Andrew Roberts: Sorry. Sorry. Threatened where? In Moscow?

John O’Sullivan: Oh yeah. Oh, well, in Russia. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, in other words, our material used to get out by being accepted by various stations. I mean, we had our own short wave radio too and we had a very good presence on the internet, but of course we wanted radio stations to take our material and we had partners and they came under pressure, at the very least, and sometimes in the more than pressure. Now that was before the Russian invasion of Georgia and that, which occurred in the same year as the collapse of the... I'm sorry, of the crash in America, financial crash.

John O’Sullivan: Those two things together had a tremendously unnerving impact on western and east European governments about the confidence of the post cold war. And you may remember 2009, the newly elected president Obama received a letter from 23 east European leaders, central European leaders and intellectuals appealing to him to devote America's attention much more to this part of the world to strengthen America's alliance with this part of the world to make it plain that they had no... Would have no truck with Russia's new aggressiveness, which of course was seen in particularly in Georgia.

Andrew Roberts: How did Obama respond to that?

John O’Sullivan: Well, I would say that he sent Joe Biden over, fundamentally as soothing exercise. What's more important perhaps than that is that Gerhard Schroeder, the then the former chancellor had issued a statement appealing to the administration really to pay no attention to what all of these people had said. And one has to say he didn't pay much attention because you had the withdrawal of the anti-missile missiles in the Czech Republic and in Poland. And not only that, but in the case of the Pols, the announcement, they received very short shift on this, very short notice and that the announcement was made on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 so they didn't even do elementary diplomatic work to, in a sense, take these decisions and then impose them on their allies.

John O’Sullivan: So you'd have to say that nervousness in this part of the world increased substantially, both because of what Russia was doing in Georgia, because there was a lack of faith all of a sudden in Western economics and the market system and finally, because the American government was obviously more concerned with its own great reset with Moscow than it was with looking after people who in a way felt themselves to be America's most loyal allies in Europe.

Andrew Roberts: And the research obviously now is collapsed. It had collapsed earlier. It collapsed in the time of the Crimea in 2014 essentially, didn't it? But as a lifelong supporter and actually a executive member of organizations that want to expand NATO, what's your feeling today with regard to Finland and Sweden tiptoeing towards the possibility?

John O’Sullivan: Well, I think that is going to depend on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. Not my view of it, so to speak, but the likelihood of prospects for this kind of thing. What is and must be alarming to Putin is all of a sudden all of the countries, which he wanted to keep out of NATO and wanted to keep, I suppose, in a sense in a reasonably friendly relationship with Russia are all now declaring they want the protection of NATO and that should make people realize exactly why this part of the world wanted to join NATO in the first place.

John O’Sullivan: And I would also say going back to the period from really the early 1990s, the west was not going around encouraging people to join. It was dealing with countries which wanted to join and then imposing tests, which they had to pass before they could become members of NATO. The EU was later in the first part of the '90s, it was NATO, which was the provider of security, yes, but also the provider of demands for democracy and both the economic and political reforms. You can't join NATO was the theme unless you have a genuine democracy, unless you are moving towards a market economy.

Andrew Roberts: Which both of both Sweden and Finland very much are.

John O’Sullivan: Of course they have that already.

Andrew Roberts: Yeah. So, I mean, they could tick every box if NATO wanted them in, but it would require therefore a very long NATO Russian border in Finland.

John O’Sullivan: That's right. And one of the points that Putin for example makes is that he was one of several post-Soviet Russian leaders who actually wanted to join NATO. Now. I remember that quite well. I was-

Andrew Roberts: I don't think Russia would've necessarily passed all those tests though, would they?

John O’Sullivan: Well, that of course is one of the problems, but it's also one of the advantages. You see, obviously all the new members of NATO in central and eastern Europe then further out in eastern Europe, all of them regarded NATO as a protection against Russia. That was the aim. They didn't take for granted Russia was down and out forever. They knew it would come back and they worried that they would then be drawn in once more into some kind of subservient relationship with them. And that's why they wanted to get in.

John O’Sullivan: So the new members would not be in favor of Russia coming in. The other thing is you couldn't have Russia in until Russia gave up it's essentially greater Russia neoimperial mindset. And that was would've been a stopping thing, but I believe we should have responded more warmly to the idea and made plain that in the long run, when the rise of China made Russia more willing to abandon the neoimperial mindset and the other countries more understanding of why it was important to get Russia in. I think we should have been stronger in holding out NATO membership as a long, for Russia, as a long term aim of the west.

Andrew Roberts: But now we are very much in the neoimperialist mindset. He would like to absorb Ukraine clearly, possibly also Belarus. And so dealing with the position that we are in... Actually, let's go back because this is a history podcast, essentially. To his belief, to Putin's belief, as he set out in that 5,000-word essay last July about Ukraine essentially not being a real country, but instead being part of greater Russia. Now he obviously believes this, a number of Russians believe it. Historians have taken it to pieces, but nonetheless, it's strong I think in some places or on the American right, that there are such places of things as spheres of influence that Ukraine was in the Russian sphere of influence. And as they keep saying, you shouldn't poke the bear. Against that, surely, there's the fact that Ukraine has been an independent and sovereign nation for 30 years. And it's not a question of poking the bear. It's a question of listening to water sovereign independent nation think.

John O’Sullivan: That's right. And the divisions I've just added to your change in recent times, the divisions within Ukraine is terms of national loyalty. Do you believe Ukraine is your nation? Some for a long time, fairly large number, never a majority obviously, their election results show that and the referendum results and large number of Russian speakers regarded Russia as their country and Ukraine was where they happened to be being deposited by history. But that has now changed completely and as a result of Russian policy and the hostility of Putin in person, personally, to the idea of Ukrainian nationality and the now the invasion and the terrible tactics that the Russians, Russian army is using, which compete uninterest in saving human life, shelling, destroying whole cities, massacring civilians. There's no longer, I think, much genuine pro-Russian feeling in any part of Ukraine. There will be some but not historically important amount.

John O’Sullivan: So if he manages to win this war in the crude sense of occupying the country, he will be occupying a country which hates him of 40 million people. And enormous. The second biggest country in Europe. Second only to Russia. One cannot see that ending well because even if the west were to decide, and I don't think it would, that it would offer no help or assistance during an insurgency, there'd be war anyway. And incidentally, if you look back at the end of the World War II, the insurgency in countries like Lithuania and Poland, to some extent carried on for a very long time for a decade or so.

Andrew Roberts: And in Ukraine, in fact, that was on until 1947, 1948.

John O’Sullivan: Well, and I would say probably longer, but in the sense that there were still people fighting, hiding out. Now, I don't think... I'm very nervous of the idea, Andrew, that in a sense we should fight to the last Ukrainian or the last Georgian and so my tendency would be not to want to encourage insurgencies, but there are sometimes the insurgencies don't need encouragement, but well, they may need help and so on.

Andrew Roberts: Well, they need ammunition in the great phrase of President Zelenskyy.

John O’Sullivan: Well, exactly. And there's no way that this insurgency, if it were to suffer, a parent military defeat would die, it will carry on. And that's something which makes this particularly tragic occasion because one can see one possible result is a war not endless. It would end probably after 15 or 20 years, but enormous numbers of deaths and destruction in the meantime.

Andrew Roberts: As you see from the World War II, the reprisals that the Nazis carried out against the sort of the mayor and so on of a town where a German soldier was killed. And mentioning Germany, the model democracy that is model day Germany, at least, hasn't it been extraordinary the way in which neopacifism in Germany, which has been around for best part of three quarters of a century has just evaporated overnight.

John O’Sullivan: This is obviously the result that people are actually watching in the whole of Europe. We are looking at what a modern war in modern Europe is like and it is absolutely horrible and it is involves a series of terrible crimes. Crimes against humanity in the technical sense, but a broader sense that this kind of destruction of people's lives and opportunities and hopes is itself bound to be a historical crime of great importance, which will have lots of impact down the years. So now we see this, now we see what it is actually physically like. I think that has had a huge impact around the world, but particularly in Europe rightly so. But we must ask ourselves this, will that feeling persist long after the shooting stops? The answer, I would like to think it would. And I think it will to some extent, but it cannot be at the fever pitch, which it is at the moment down the years. It will go away.

John O’Sullivan: The question is whether or not political opinion in a substantial way in Germany has shifted permanently to, I don't want to say cold war mentality, but it's the easiest shorthand for saying it. We're faced with an enemy, which is determined to change our lives for the worse. And the Ukraine are the people who are suffering the really sharp end of it, but the rest of us are going to suffer to some extent as well and we therefore have to keep ourselves armed and vigilant. That's the state of mind, which it's very hard to sustain, particularly on the left and after all the left is very powerful in Germany. And the broad appeal of the left's view of foreign policy, namely we're a country of commercial pacifism appeals to business and the right as well as to the traditional green and left opinion.

Andrew Roberts: Absolutely. But German business seems to have stepped up as well. Doesn't it? In this case at least.

John O’Sullivan: Oh yes. And the greens have stepped up. In fact, in some ways, they were ahead of the chancellor in the S P D. And I am happy that's the situation in Germany and other parts of Europe. And I'm not saying it will evaporate, but I am saying that we can't predict that it will carry on quite the way that it has done. After all, that is not the experience during the cold war. I mean, it's the experience when there are events like Hungary in '56, but then by middle 1960s, that had evaporated.

Andrew Roberts: And then you get Helsinki in 1975. You've written a book of course, about Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II and the way in which these three extraordinary figures came together in the same decade to help win the cold war. As an old cold war warrior yourself, would you... Do you see... Obviously the cold war is back, but do you see how... What differences do you see between the original cold war and this next one?

John O’Sullivan: Well, I think the element of the nuclear weapons is now back on the agenda more painfully than before.

Andrew Roberts: Because Putin has saber-rattled him.

John O’Sullivan: He's actually hinted at threats of using them. And most of the time that was not the kind of thing that the Soviet leaders were saying and-

Andrew Roberts: So in a sense is worse.

John O’Sullivan: In that regard, it's worse. The question then arises that whether or not you think Putin is irrational and the Soviets, it's not Soviets, I'm sorry, the Russians might use nuclear weapons. I've just read a very good analysis of this briefly on Twitter by the former Russian foreign minister, Kozyrev. Andrey Kozyrev. And he makes the convincing case in my view that he isn't. He is not in irrational. He is merely ruthless. And that from his standpoint, some of the decisions he's taken while immoral, nonetheless, they represent a realistic view of Russian interests even if a cruel one.

John O’Sullivan:  I mean, that makes... Can I just pick you up on that because in a sense, that's got to be right, hasn't it? Because if we just go down the route where we say oh, he's gone mad, then that essentially lets off entire generation of European leaders, people like Anglo Merkel, who at the moment look terrible in the decisions that they've taken over the years, hasn't it?

John O’Sullivan:  Mrs. Merkel looks particularly bad. And one of her advisors who when she left praised her for always keeping the interest of Russia as one of her load stars, that now looks particularly bad.

Andrew Roberts: So cringe making, isn't it?

John O’Sullivan:  Yes, absolutely. And I think that she's probably wise to keep a bit out of the public eye for a while. I think she's now lost all in a sense authority in the party, which among other things, one of the victims of Mrs Merkel's policy is the Christian Democrats. They've gone from generally being in the upper 40s or the middle 40s and public opinion Pols down to the middle 20s.

Andrew Roberts: When we look also at the difference between cold war one and the present cold war, let's call it cold war two, the fact that the Russians are in a position to sort of switch the spigots off and make Europe freeze. That's a new danger, isn't it? I mean, although obviously the result would be that Putin would be financially much less well off, nonetheless, it could put a lot. You were talking earlier about German public opinion. Could that be the thing that turned German public opinion against this new sort of vigorous phase that it seems to be undergoing?

John O’Sullivan:  I think we, the Germans and everybody else in Western Europe now and indeed all of Europe are going to have to completely change their energy policy. There is no doubt about that. Making net zero the focus of policy which determines everything, net zero carbon emissions by 2050, that's completely unrealistic. And if it were to be continue to be pursued, it would hand a tremendously powerful economic card to Russia and to Putin. If the policy therefore begins, developing an energy policy that supplies reliable, cheap energy of Europeans without buying it all from Russia.

Andrew Roberts: That's nuclear, isn't it?

John O’Sullivan:  Well, nuclear is one element in it. I think that's right. And I think there are technical improvements, innovations coming down which will make other kinds of replacement fuels possible. But frankly, the answer is we have to do that and we have to assume that we'll be stuck with the present mix of policies, which we'll gradually change from. Now, how do we do that while keeping Russia at bay or not? Because after all, if you say to the Russians we're going to pursue policies to mean that we won't be buying any of your oil. Well, they can sell it to the Chinese at the moment. The Chinese will provide a very tough bargain. In fact, one of the results of Russian policy at the moment, which I think Putin has taken into account, but it's a very big blow, he's becoming a satellite of the Chinese. He's becoming far too dependent on them and they don't have absolutely unique... They don't have a common interest on a big range of things.

John O’Sullivan: Their principle common interest is being opposed to the west and I agree that's a powerful thing, but it wasn't enough to keep China and Russia together when Russia was the Soviet Union. They could be divided then and they can be divided in future. That will mean Mr. Putin has got to consider whether or not all of the things that will now go wrong for him make his policy irrational. I mean, he may have miscalculated. I think he has. Doesn't need to, but the question would be to go back. And what about the use of nuclear weapons? Would he use nuclear weapons? Kozyrev says he wouldn't and I completely agree with that. Nuclear weapons deter nuclear weapons. If Putin has realized something important, which is that if you have nuclear weapons, other people can't use them against you. But maybe that means you can say to a weaker power, weaker in conventional military terms, we're going to come in and take over your country and your allies won't come to your support. Now, Ukraine doesn't have allies in the technical.

Andrew Roberts: And it also doesn't have nuclear weapons. I mean, in a sense, it was a terrible mistake for Ukraine to have given them up under NATO, American pressure back in the mid 1990s.

John O’Sullivan: And that must tell you about some of background thinking in this part of the world and when people say why doesn't Eastern Europe and why doesn't the central Europe be more, so to speak, planned to a better ally on something? Why do they not? Why are they not always in the forefront of things? The answer is because they're going to be left out on a limb if the allies in the west leave them out on a limb. And that's exactly what happened with the Budapest memorandum. The Bris and the Americans gave what are said to be not guarantees, but assurances. Not sure what that distinction means in practice of the security of Ukraine. Of course, that's been violated by Putin himself, but it hasn't exactly been observed by the Americans and the Brits.

John O’Sullivan: I would say now they are beginning to act like genuinely true allies. I mean, the Brits and the Americans have actually delivered lethal weapons. They've done a great deal lately in order and the Europeans are coming around to the same thing. But frankly, I have to say that there is very serious weight in the question that the Ukrainian president asks, which is if we're losing the war because we don't have HERPA and you won't declare a no fly zone, the then you must give us planes to fight that war. And that is beginning to happen but the time is short, the battle is raging.

Andrew Roberts: And do you think that were Polish MiGs to be physically transferred at the border to Ukrainians who then use them to shoot down Russian planes? Do you think that Putin would be justified in any way as seeing that as an aggressive act from NATO?

John O’Sullivan: Of course not. He's got absolutely no. I mean, it's not an aggressive act. It's a defensive act. And consequently, under the UN charter, the Ukrainians can basically ask for people to come to their assistance, which they've done. That's legal. And secondly, of course, under the Budapest memorandum, which he signed, rather that Russia signed, the Americans and the Brits are under some kind of obligation to do the same. And all of this results from a plainly aggressive action and an aggression which is completely illegal and which is being conducted in terms reminiscent of the Nazis, which in terms of the ruthlessness, they are showing to the civilian population.

John O’Sullivan: So when we look at all those kind of things, Putin has no legal length stand on in terms of objecting to people coming to the assistance of Ukraine. And I personally agree with Kozyrev that if we were to declare a no fly zone, which you could argue is very similar to the Nixon doctrine, which is to say, if you are fighting for your are freedom, you must do the bulk of the fighting, but we will help you from the air.

John O’Sullivan: I think that is... I think if the NATO were to impose a no fly zone and strictly ensure that any plane is shot down, for example, was shot down over Ukraine territory. To say that I'm... For Putin to say I'm now entitled to go outside Ukraine.

Andrew Roberts: But then you would have a problem, wouldn't you? With having to neutralize ground to air missiles, which might be stationed in be Belarus or even Russia. Now, and that surely-

John O’Sullivan: I think that would be a nice and I think that the only way that the NATO would actually carry out this act or be justified in doing so is if it were to keep the war in Ukraine. So you would have in these circumstances, a war for Ukraine in Ukraine, which except for the arrival of Russian and Belarusian troops, nobody else would be actually fighting apart from Ukrainians. And to say therefore that you are entitled if somebody supplies weapons, to treat that as an act of war to the Ukrainians state, legal state, that's absurd. And I don't think it would have... Frankly, I think it would have no purchase on international opinion.

Andrew Roberts: You mentioned earlier that the Pols were self-confident, certainly more self-confidence in a sense than the Hungarians. Does this come from their history or their geography or both?

John O’Sullivan: Their geography in the present circumstances and they have consciousness of a Russian threat. As opposed to the Soviet, the experience of the Soviet threat after the war is much sharper, of course, for historical reasons. And in fact, it's worth making this point because when Putin says that he wants to have a continuing guarantee of security in its backyard, that might apply historically to the Pols and it certainly would apply to Ukraine. I think the argument is false in a general sense, but yes, the Russia did govern large parts of Poland for large amounts of time in the 19th century and before.

Andrew Roberts: But also I think it applies to Lithuania and the Buddhist state.

John O’Sullivan: It doesn't apply to Hungary though, doesn't it? It doesn't apply to Czechoslovakia. In other words, they were not part of any Russian [inaudible]. They were the Austria Hungarian empire. And so his argument is at the very least, even in his own terms, it's grossly exaggerated and has no, to my view, has no value.

Andrew Roberts: Final question, John, and thank you so much for agreeing to do this. We saw the tanks shelling a nuclear reactor in Ukraine. You've already talked about massacres of civilians, the shelling of humanitarian lines, the possible use of thermobaric bombs and various other kinds of weapons that are illegal, cluster bombs and so on. He seems to have no line, a moral line, ethical line that he won't cross in this war. Have we really just... Is the 24th of February, 2022 a new moment in the history of the west? Are we actually seeing essentially one of the great and ancient powers of Europe, Russia, become a rogue state?

John O’Sullivan: We will see that when we see to how successful, how sustained is the rejection of Putinism and this war, his war by Russians. Now at the moment, it looks as opinion polls show 70% support. It's perfectly true on the other side that at the moment, they're blocking a lot of Western information from the Russian people and that the official stations are all completely propaganda and well, they simply don't tell people that there is such an invasion. They justify an invasion without admitting what's happening on the ground. So I think we have to say that if there is a rejection of Putin by the population, it may not be overnight and it may take a long time, but then we would say yes, the Russians are part of our civilization. They are certainly in terms of culture, music, novels and so many other ways. And their governing system, which has been primitive for a long time and effective, that governing system will be brought into our civilization fully as well. That hasn't happened, but I-

Andrew Roberts: So you don't go along, sorry, you don't go along with the idea that because Russia was a democracy within inverted commerce for a few months in 1917 and then a few months more under Yeltsin but hasn't been otherwise in the last 300 years that therefore the Russians just simply aren't capable of democracy that they like strong men, they like tsars. Putin is just the latest one and actually the Russians are not constitutional capable of democracy. They don't go along with that idea.

John O’Sullivan: No. And I think that you could have made the same point about the Ukrainians, couldn't you? That they were in that same system. That was the, I mean, they... I'm not saying that, I'm making.

Andrew Roberts: No, absolutely. And so for the last 30 years, for the last 30 years, the Ukrainians have proved that they are capable of sovereignty and self government. And in a sense, don't you think that historically the argument that they are not a real country, which, which Putin puts forward in his historical disquotations has been totally disproved by the last 10 days. I mean, because you don't fight and die for something that is not a real country.

John O’Sullivan: You don't don't fight and die and you don't also act in general as the, I think the Ukrainians have been acting, which is to say bravely on the one hand, but also sending wives and children out of harm's way. I don't think they've been in a very strong possession to commit terrible atrocities, but we haven't heard of many. Maybe bound to be one or two because that's what war is like and it tempts people into terrible crimes. But it looks at the moment as though they are a good demonstration of people with a democratic and modern outlook. And that's what everybody has been saying is true about Ukraine for the last few, well, for the last 10 or 15 years, but haven't they also been saying that about Russia as well? In other words, people have said about Russia that there is a new dictatorship being established by degrees and people could respond to that.

John O’Sullivan: Well, there's still much more freedom of speech and opinion and expression than there was under the Soviets time. And I think what's true, it's not true that this moment, but I would've said that the initial reaction of Russians will fade and then it will be, and even now, there are large demonstrations taking place against the war despite extremely severe penalties that have been threatened. And I think you have a Russian civil society in Moscow, in St. Petersburg and other major cities of people who travel to the west, work with the west or in the west, who have families at universities. So not just the... It's not just the bosses of the daughters and sons of the oligarchs who have this. There are large numbers of Russians who live in the modern world the way we think of it.

John O’Sullivan: Now, their view in a dictatorship doesn't carry any democratic weight, obviously, but it's there and I think that when the dictatorship has been defeated, and if it's defeated in war, it will probably be defeated in domestic politics as a result. The way the Argentinian generals were in the Falklands War, then I think we will see what a genuine and democratic Russia is like. And then may be it won't emerge overnight, but I think it will emerge after all.

John O’Sullivan: The article I've just been quoting to from Andrey Kozyrev. Kozyrev was worked in the Soviet system until he became foreign minister. And we only then discovered what his real views are. [inaudible] rose easily through the Soviet system until he showed that he was something more than that, something very much more than that. He himself is... I've not heard anything from him in recent days, but he has refuted the idea that it was the West's expansion that has caused this war, so, and NATO's expansion. So no, I'm not ultimately pessimistic. I don't think that something genetic about the Russians means that they can't be Democrats, they can't live in a liberal society. Every nation has had to struggle from its own history to achieve that.

Andrew Roberts: John O'Sullivann on that optimistic note, the president of the Danube Institute. Thank you very much for your views from here in Budapest.

Andrew Roberts: And please join me on my next show when I'll be discussing an entirely lighter topic, the history of the FUPA with the novelist and humorist, Christopher Buckley. Best wishes till then.

Speaker 1: This podcast is a production of the Hoover Institution, where we advance ideas that define a free society and improve the human condition. For more information about our work or to listen to more of our podcasts or watch our videos, please visit

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