It was discussed in the Council of Ministers for “a very long time”, Prime Minister Mark Rutte (VVD) said last Friday. If Russian President Putin invades Ukraine again, he will have to reckon with “an incredibly harsh reaction”.
It sounded threatening, but in reality the West is divided on how to respond to a possible Russian invasion. It is clear that under no circumstances does NATO wish to involve itself militarily in a new conflict in Ukraine. However, agreement on the alternative – economic sanctions – still seems a long way off. For example, the German government has not yet taken a clear position on one of the most difficult options: the closure of the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2.
When it comes to other measures, such as arming the Ukrainian armed forces, NATO countries are hardly fighting in the streets. Last week, Berlin prevented Estonia from delivering German-made howitzers to Kiev. When Britain sent anti-tank missiles into Ukraine last week, the British transport plane flew over German airspace in a wide arc. With Washington and London warning almost daily of an impending Russian invasion, French President Emmanuel Macron has suggested the EU should start its own dialogue with Moscow.
So far, the Netherlands has been among the pigeons in the discussion on the Ukraine crisis, says Han ten Broeke, director of the Hague Center for Strategic Studies (HCSS). But last week, the Netherlands suddenly sought to join the hawks’ side within Europe. Minister Kajsa Ollongren (Defence, D66) announced that two Dutch F-35s will be sent to Bulgaria and that an amphibious transport ship will be made available to the NATO rapid reaction force.
Although these are ongoing NATO operations, the deployment is intended to deter Russia from “further violating Ukraine’s sovereignty”, Ollongren wrote.
One step forward
During consultations with the House of Representatives, Minister Wopke Hoekstra (Foreign Affairs, CDA) went further. The Netherlands, Hoekstra said, is “not indifferent” to requests from the Ukrainian government to provide “defensive weapons”. His predecessor, outgoing minister Ben Knapen (CDA), did not like arms deliveries.
“The Netherlands have clearly moved forward,” concludes Han ten Broeke. “A trend break,” says Rem Korteweg, a researcher at the Clingendael Institute: “We are generally not at the forefront when it comes to arms supply.”
Ten Broeke and Korteweg see several reasons for The Hague’s tougher stance. Last week’s UK deliveries played a role. The Netherlands has close ties with Ukraine, for example due to the joint investigation into the downing of flight MH17. Moreover, the Netherlands has been involved for years in military missions to protect the Baltic countries – countries that support a hard line against Moscow.
In recent years, the Netherlands has not been in a good position with NATO, but the new cabinet is now investing billions more in defence. “The Netherlands want to show that they can be taken seriously,” Korteweg said. New foreign man Hoekstra will also want to show some determination. At the beginning of February, Hoekstra and Prime Minister Rutte will pay a (previously planned) working visit to Ukraine. “If Rutte and Hoekstra go to Kiev, of course they must be able to offer something there,” says Ten Broeke.
Request for arms
On Thursday, Minister Hoekstra told the House of Representatives that there was already a demand for arms from the Ukrainian government. Spokespersons for the General Affairs and Foreign Affairs ministries could not say over the weekend what Kiev asked. It is clear that the Netherlands is planning to help Ukraine defend against cyberattacks.
On Monday, EU foreign ministers will meet in Brussels to discuss the sanctions package. Minister Hoekstra and Prime Minister Mark Rutte would not say anything about the Dutch commitment last week. What is certain is that Germany, with its softer approach, is becoming more and more isolated. Last week, Spain decided to send fighter jets to Bulgaria, as did the Netherlands. Madrid is also sending a navy vessel to the Black Sea and has also said it is ready to take soldiers on a military training mission.
This option is also still on the table for the Netherlands. “The pressure on Germany is growing more and more,” says Korteweg. This weekend, Britain went further, saying it had information that Russia was planning a coup to overthrow Ukrainian President Zelensky.
This week, the United States and NATO will respond in writing to Russian demands for security guarantees, such as a ban on any further expansion of the alliance. From Monday, the EU’s position will become clearer. Clingendael researcher Korteweg is curious what can be inferred from the statement EU foreign ministers will issue – although they probably don’t want to be too much in the cards. According to Ten Broeke, the Netherlands will have to focus mainly on finding a European compromise, whatever form it takes. “Unity, unity, unity, that’s what matters now.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 24, 2022
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