The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has embarked on a tour of central European countries aimed at countering the influence of Russia and China, after a decade in which the region has been sidelined by US diplomacy.
Pompeo is in Budapest on Monday, where he will have several meetings before dining with Viktor Orbán, the country’s rightwing prime minister. Orbán was shunned under Barack Obama’s administration over his populist style and moves against media freedoms and the rule of law.
His actions and words on migration, speaking of a threat to “Christian culture” and building a fence along the country’s border, are similar to much of Donald Trump’s rhetoric. The Trump administration has taken a new approach, prioritising engagement over criticism.
In a briefing to journalists before the trip, a senior administration official said: “It has been, in part, the lack of robust US engagement over the last decade or so in central Europe that has created the vacuums that China and Russia have very readily filled.”
Orbán has struck up warm relations with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, leading many to fear that Russia could be using Budapest as a base for spying and other influence operations in Europe. While Trump has frequently praised Putin, the state department has made it clear that countering Moscow’s influence in Europe remains a priority.
“Vladimir Putin showed up in Hungary twice last year alone and the last time a US president was in Budapest was 2006,” said the senior administration official.
Trump’s friend David Cornstein, an 80-year-old former jewellery magnate, was appointed ambassador to Hungary last year. He has been tasked with building a new relationship with Orbán. Cornstein said he would not publicly criticise Orbán and an Obama-era policy to provide funding to Hungary’s struggling independent media outlets was quietly scrapped.
Despite this, Cornstein’s requests to the Hungarian government to keep open the Central European University, an English-language institution founded by George Soros that has come under fire from Orbán, were ignored. The university is beginning a gradual move to Vienna after being refused accreditation by Hungarian authorities. This has lead some to question whether engagement was the right approach.
A leaked Hungarian diplomatic cable from December, published by the investigative website direkt36, suggested there is frustration in Washington over Hungarian intransigence on several issues considered as key to US interests.
During his visit, Pompeo hopes to make progress on the signing of a new defence cooperation agreement between the US and Hungary, which has long stalled. He will also raise the issue of energy security.
Despite the focus on engagement, Pompeo will also meet civil society groups in Budapest, including those targeted by the Hungarian government for providing legal assistance to refugees attempting to enter Hungary. The government has smeared many such groups as “Soros agents”, which are working to destroy Hungary.
On Tuesday, Pompeo will travel to Bratislava, where he will meet Slovakia’s leaders, before visiting Warsaw for a US-sponsored conference on the Middle East. The conference, which has been received warily by the EU, is expected to focus on Iran. Pompeo will briefly visit Brussels and Iceland before returning home.
As well as Russian influence, Chinese influence in the region is also likely to come up, particularly after a Huawei employee was arrested for spying by Polish authorities last month. The telecommunications company operates across the region.
The senior administration official said: “We see this as being problematic across the board but I think what sets central and eastern Europe apart is you have a large number of mostly small and mid-size states that – many of whom have a higher propensity to corruption.”