(CNN) – After weeks of being unable to divide Europe due to his war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin scored two small diplomatic victories this weekend.
In both Hungary and Serbia, pro-Russian parties comfortably won legislative elections, giving Putin a welcome reminder that despite the international community’s strong and largely united response against the invasion, he has some friends in the West.
The most important victory came when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his nationalist party Fidesz achieved a landslide victory. Hungary is a member of both the European Union and NATO, so Putin can claim to have a friend sitting at the head of two of his most hated institutions.
On Sunday evening, during his victory speech, Orban criticized not only the European Union, but also Ukraine.
“We achieved a great victory that you can probably see from the moon, but certainly you can see it from Brussels,” he said, adding that Fidesz “will remember this victory until the end of our lives, because we had to fight a lot of opponents.” The list of opponents included Brussels bureaucrats, the international media, and, deliberately, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Zelensky criticized Orban directly for not supporting Ukraine with the same fervor as many other European presidents in recent weeks.
Putin was quick to congratulate Orban on his victory. But few think it will be more than a symbolic victory and will do little to influence the EU’s decision on Ukraine.
The truth is that Orbán was expected to win and that the political community had been working around his leadership for years. Despite stalling his decision at first, Orban accepted EU sanctions against Russia and was largely in line with the rest of the Western alliance. Hungary’s main obstacle to supporting Ukraine was Orbán’s reluctance to allow the passage of arms through his country to support Ukrainian forces.
Hungary is also the main stumbling block in EU talks on banning energy imports from Russia. Germany said at the weekend that the bloc needed to discuss a Russian gas embargo after reports of war crimes in Ukraine, a move Orban has repeatedly dismissed.
Hungary’s obstinacy has infuriated its main ally Poland, Europe’s other major violator of the rule of law, which has vetoed Orbán’s protection from EU punishment on numerous occasions in recent years. It is unclear whether Poland will do so after the end of the war.
Hungary has moved away from the EU’s values of the rule of law and human rights, suppressing cultural institutions and suppressing freedom of the press.
Most attempts to sanction Hungary at the EU level have failed, not least because meaningful action requires the consent of all EU member states to vote.
Poland and Hungary struck a deal recently, and both are effectively exercising their EU veto power to protect each other. However, Poland is arguably the biggest anti-Russia hawk in the political community, and it is not yet clear how this will affect the Poland-Hungary axis once the war is over.
Since the start of the war, EU officials have been quietly talking about offering Poland incentives to get closer to the rest of the bloc, rather than treating Poland and Hungary as two criminals.
The situation is completely different in Serbia, which is not a member of the European Union or NATO. It is now in the process of joining the political community, and negotiations are expected to be completed within the next two years.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has been left in a difficult position due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For years, he has tried to balance maintaining strong diplomatic and economic ties with Russia (and a fondness for Putin) with the Western embrace that would come with full membership in the European Union.
Reuters reported that during the election campaign, Vucic did not depart from this balance and ran on a platform of peace and stability in the region.
Serbia is almost completely dependent on Russian gas, while its army maintains relations with the Russian army. Although Serbia backed two United Nations resolutions condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it refused to impose sanctions on Moscow, Reuters reported.
The Kremlin also supports Belgrade’s opposition to Kosovo’s independence by banning its membership in the United Nations.
There is no doubt that the results of this weekend’s election – particularly in Hungary – will make Putin smile and leaders in Brussels raise their hands. However, for the EU, more Orban really means more of the same. It could give Putin some propaganda victories and influence broader EU plans for the future. But the political community has been looking for ways to work closely with Orban for years and knows that when the time comes, Orbán is much happier within the club which is causing trouble than planning to leave.