RLI: Russian special services are preparing measures in Budapest to discredit the military command and political leaders of Ukraine

Russian special services are preparing to hold active measures in Budapest with the participation of Ukrainian prisoners of war in order to discredit the military command and political leaders of Ukraine, criticizing the current mobilization and service in the Ukrainian army, as reported by the U.S.-based Robert Lansing Institute think tank.

“The process of transferring prisoners of war to Ukraine bears all the signs of an active psyop as Budapest is now preparing a major press conference with their participation, where the issues of mobilization, military service, and captivity would be discussed. The goal is to compromise the Ukrainian military command and political leaders, and criticize the ongoing military draft. If these issues are brought up at the event, this will ultimately confirm that the stunt is part of a sophisticated intelligence operation by Russia,” RLI analysts state.

According to the platform, during Pope Francis’ recent visit to Hungary, a meeting was held behind closed doors with Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeev) of Budapest and Hungary, whom RLI identified back in October 2022 as an informal intermediary between Russia and the Hungarian government.

Previously, Hilarion headed the department for external church relations at the Russian Orthodox Church, RLI reports. He maintained active media presence, and was also a member of Patriarch Kirill’s entourage, being considered as the heir to the patriarchal throne. He is believed to have personally contributed to the blocking of the EU decision to impose personal sanctions against ROC Primate Kirill. The ROC maintains a stable communication channel between the Vatican and the Kremlin. Most likely, it has recently become more active both under the pretext of the peace mediation efforts claimed by the Roman Catholic Church, and with the aim of conducting certain intelligence operations.

“Obviously, the ambiguous position of the Vatican regarding Russia’s aggression in Ukraine with hints at certain U.S. interests (mirroring the Kremlin’s official position) was formed including due to the Kremlin’s communication channels involving the Russian Orthodox Church. According to our estimates, the tasks of setting up and maintaining this church channel are handled by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR),” the article says.

RLI believes that the purpose of the operation is to provide support for Hungary’s territorial claims in Zakarpattia, Ukraine’s far-western region.

“This indirectly confirms the suggestion that before Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Budapest could receive guarantees from the Kremlin that the region would eventually be handed to Hungary. This explains the fact that Hungary moved convoys of military equipment toward the border with Ukraine on February 23, 2022. Thus, Budapest may be, in fact, interested in a Russia prevailing in the war with Ukraine, which would provide the Orbán government with opportunities for territorial expansion and, as a result, an raise make himself and his force even more popular among nationalist voters who support Hungary’s restoration within the borders of the Treaty of Trianon” the report reads.

Analysts suggest that the transfer of Ukrainian prisoners of war who are originally from Zakarpattia) by Hungary could improve Budapest’s image in the region after being massively affected as a result of Viktor Orban’s government’s support for Russia and the blocking of EU and NATO decisions in support of Ukraine. The participation of the Russian Orthodox Church in this operation is also expected to improve its position in Ukraine, especially in the said Zakarpattia region, where its branch, operating under the title of the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” was banned by local authorities as a “threat to national security.”

“In the last two years, the topic of territorial claims to Ukraine has been supervised by Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service. Its chief, Sergei Naryshkin, personally partook an at least one of the latest psyops aimed at undermining trust in Ukraine authorities among their international partners, in particular Poland, which the SVR boss alleged was supposed to snatch Lviv region in the western part of Ukraine. Thus, the transfer of Ukrainian prisoners of war through Hungary allows Moscow to partially balance the criticism Budapest is facing over protecting Moscow’s interests in the war against Ukraine, and at the same time – to provide Hungary with certain grounds for demonstrating its “protective” influence over Zakarpattia and intensifying their media, political, and social presence in the region.This case demonstrates how Moscow involves the Russian Orthodox Church in intelligence missions to exploit its church channels to pursue influence operations, playing the interests of other denominations,” the article concludes.

RLI recalls that on June 8, 2023, the press service of the Russian Orthodox Church reported that, as part of inter-church cooperation efforts, they handed over to Hungary a group of prisoners of war, who had been captured by Russia. Moscow said the group consisted of 11 Ukrainians originally from Ukraine’s Zakarpattia region bordering Hungary.

According to Ukrainian officials, the exchange initiative was never discussed with Kyiv. The corresponding media report was also denied by the Deputy State Secretary at the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, Adam Stifter, and chief of the Department for Eastern European Affairs, Christina Murphy, who noted that they had no information on the issue. Observers suggested that the negotiations could be conducted through the Russia’s intelligence operatives and the Russian Orthodox Church with the limited involvement of Hungarian government officials. Although, as it became known later, it was the Hungarian side who insisted on the transfer of prisoners of war, which once again confirms the fact that it’s Russian intelligence that is behind the POW handover talks.

According to media reports, the Hungarian Maltese Aid Service is involved in the transport of prisoners of war. However, the representative of the organization, L. Alani, denies any involvement in the transfer of prisoners of war from Russia to Hungary.

In addition, it is known that the issue of the release of the said group of Ukrainian POWs was discussed during the pontiff’s visit to Hungary on April 28-30 as part of an interchurch dialogue. On the Hungarian side, the issue was coordinated by Deputy Prime Minister for Religious Affairs Zsolt Semjen, together who is in touch with Russia’s intelligence operatives.