It was discussed in the Council of Ministers for “a very long time”, Prime Minister Mark Rutte (VVD) said last Friday. Should Russian President Putin invade Ukraine again, he will have to reckon with “an incredibly harsh reaction”.
That 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 want to become militarily involved in a new conflict in Ukraine. However, agreement on the alternative – economic sanctions – seems a long way off. For example, the German government has not yet taken a clear position on one of the toughest options: the closure of the Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2.
When it comes to other measures, such as arming the Ukrainian armed forces, the NATO countries are just barely fighting in the street. Last week, Berlin prevented Estonia from delivering German-origin howitzers to Kiev. When Britain sent anti-tank missiles to Ukraine last week, the British transport aircraft flew around German airspace in a wide arc. While Washington and London are warning almost daily about an imminent Russian invasion, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested that the EU should start its own dialogue with Moscow.
Until now, the Netherlands has been among the pigeons in the discussion about the Ukraine crisis, says Han ten Broeke, director at the The Hague Center for Strategic Studies (HCSS). But last week, the Netherlands suddenly sought to join the hawks’ camp 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 NATO’s rapid reaction force.
Although these are ongoing NATO operations, the deployment is intended to deter Russia from “further violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty,” Ollongren wrote.
One step further
During consultations with the House of Representatives, Minister Wopke Hoekstra (Foreign Affairs, CDA) went one step further. The Netherlands, Hoekstra said, is “not unsympathetic” to requests from the Ukrainian government to supply “defensive weapons”. His predecessor, outgoing minister Ben Knapen (CDA), did not like arms supplies.
“The Netherlands has clearly moved forward,” concludes Han ten Broeke. “A trend break,” says Rem Korteweg, researcher at the Clingendael Institute: “We are usually not at the forefront when it comes to supplying weapons.”
Ten Broeke and Korteweg see a number of reasons for The Hague’s tougher stance. Last week’s UK deliveries played a role. The Netherlands has close ties with Ukraine, for example because of the joint investigation into the downing of flight MH17. Moreover, the Netherlands has been involved for years in military missions to guard the Baltic countries – countries that support a hard line against Moscow.
In recent years, the Netherlands has not been particularly good at NATO, but the new cabinet is now investing billions more in defence. “The Netherlands wants to show that it can be taken seriously,” says Korteweg. The new man at Foreign Affairs Hoekstra will also want to radiate decisiveness. 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, they must of course be able to offer something there,” says Ten Broeke.
Request for weapons
Minister Hoekstra said in the House of Representatives on Thursday that there is already a request from the Ukrainian government for weapons. Spokespersons for the ministries of General Affairs and Foreign Affairs could not say this weekend what Kiev has asked for. It is clear that the Netherlands is considering helping Ukraine to defend itself against cyber attacks.
On Monday, European foreign ministers will meet in Brussels to discuss the sanctions package. Both Minister Hoekstra and Prime Minister Mark Rutte did not want to say anything about the Dutch commitment last week. What is certain is that Germany, with its softer approach, is becoming increasingly isolated. Last week, Spain decided to send fighter planes to Bulgaria, just like the Netherlands. Madrid is also sending a naval vessel to the Black Sea and has also said it is willing to take soldiers on a military training mission.
This option is also still on the table for the Netherlands. “The pressure on Germany is increasing further and further,” says Korteweg. This weekend, Britain went one step further, saying it has information that Russia is planning a coup to oust Ukrainian President Zelensky.
This week, the US and NATO will respond in writing to Russian demands for security guarantees, such as a ban on further alliance expansion. As early as Monday, more will become clear about the EU’s position. Clingendael researcher Korteweg is curious about what can be deduced from the statement that the European ministers of Foreign Affairs will issue – although they probably do not want to be too much in the cards. According to Ten Broeke, the Netherlands will have to focus primarily on reaching a European compromise – whatever that may look like. “Unity, unity, unity, that is what matters now.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 24, 2022