Putin, the Dutch are no longer smiling

The MH17 tragedy has outraged the Dutch, inevitably affecting relations with Russia.

The Dutch public has gone through a whirl of emotions following the MH17 tragedy, writes Keulen [Reuters]

It has been called an event that will drastically change the Netherlands and have an impact on Dutch society that will last for years, if not decades. The death toll of this man-made disaster was staggering: All 298 passengers and crew on board of flight MH17 died, of which 195 were Dutch.

Two weeks after the downing of Malaysia Airline’s plane, one feels the country has still not come to terms with this unexpected tragedy. All of a sudden, this peaceful, relatively small and rich country in Northwestern Europe becomes involved, in spite of itself, in the conflict in Ukraine and the geo-political ambitions of Russia at the other end of the continent.

All of a sudden the Netherlands had to decide how to handle feelings of immense public anger at Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is generally seen as having provided the pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine with the SA-11 missile launchers that downed the plane.

It has been an emotional roller coaster. Living in this country and following Dutch media, one could see the Netherlands going through a whirl of emotions in the weeks after the tragedy.

A nation overwhelmed

There was unbelief and shock at first when the news broke. The Netherlands is small and many people knew directly or indirectly some of the victims of the crash. And if there were no personal ties, there were certainly communal links that connected the living to the dead: they were students at the same school or university, residents in the same village or city, members of the same sport club or – last but not least – they were connected on social media.

After the shock came grief, outrage and anger. People were not only angry at the Russian rebels and Putin, but even more at the way the remains of the victims were handled and the way investigators were prevented from reaching the crash scene. The looting of the victims’ purses, mobile telephones and cameras outraged the Dutch public and even more so the fact that not all remains were collected from the site. A team of 70 Dutch and Australian experts was able to reach the crash site to conduct further search operations only on August 1.

Inside Story – Who shot down Flight MH17?

There was at first a great deal of confusion and a collective feeling of powerlessness. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte adopted an extremely cautious approach in the first hours and days after the crash. While British Prime Minister David Cameron started to blame Putin only hours after the crash and speculated about sanctions against Russia, Rutte refused to point a finger at a definite culprit. At first the Dutch prime minister did not classify the tragedy as a criminal or “terrorist act”, as Ukrainian Prime Minister Petro Poroshenko did; instead he used the words a “great disaster”.

Rutte was criticised by some in the Netherlands and abroad for not being firm enough. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen tweeted “Downing flight 17 is an act of war. Dutch special forces, backed by NATO, should secure the site where their citizens are being defiled even in death.” Similar calls for military intervention were vented in Dutch social media and in the popular right-wing daily De Telegraaf.

Are the Dutch going to war in Ukraine to recover the remains of their beloved fellow citizens and to restore national dignity? Though Rutte later claimed that the military option had indeed been discussed in the Dutch cabinet, this “temptation” was easily resisted. The last thing the Netherlands needs and wants is to be involved in an foreign war far from home. In past decades, its soldiers had only been involved in UN peace keeping operations in countries like Lebanon, Bosnia and Mali.

Dignity was, however, partly restored by the impressive way the recovered human remains were received in the Netherlands, with a lot of military pomp and in the presence of King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima. On July 23 the country came to a standstill during the first day of national mourning since; we had never seen anything like that since Queen Wilhelmina died in 1962.

Though many Dutch tend to think of themselves as cosmopolitan and regard nationalism and patriotism as “isms” of the past, in fact the MH17 crash brought people together in a unique way. The Dutch were very much together in grief, in mourning, in anger, in anti-Putin sentiment and surprisingly also in pride. The emotional speech of Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans in the UN Security Council added to the feelings of pride and togetherness. “Nobody can bring us to our knees”, Timmermans wrote on his Facebook page, “our country is capable of great compassion and unity.”

A dramatic wake-up call

The story of the MH17 tragedy did not come to an end when we buried our dead. The investigation on the ground in Eastern Ukraine has only just begun and the remaining body parts and personal belongings of the victims still have not been recovered. In the Netherlands, however, some taboos have already been broken.

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The downing of the MH17 was a dramatic wake-up call regarding the lack of strength of the Dutch army. The Dutch only recently put their last military tanks for sale and the Netherlands spends less than 1.5 percent of its GNP on national defence (in contrast to US’ 3.7 percent of the GNP). The discussion about strengthening the armed forces, after the expiration of the post-Cold War peace dividend, is very much on.

After the Russian annexation of Crimea, the downing of MH17 is considered a real game changer in Europe. Most Dutch political forces now seem to agree to make more funding available for the military and for NATO to deal with a changing geo-political reality in Europe.

Another broken taboo is increased Dutch support for EU sanctions against Russia. The Netherlands is one of Russia’s major trade partners. The Netherlands (especially through the port of Rotterdam) imported $43bn in oil products from Russia in 2012. Some 4,000 Dutch companies do business in Russia and the Netherlands is a major investor in Russia.

The announced EU sanctions and their potential extension will have a negative effect on Dutch and EU economy. These sanctions limit access to capital markets by Russian state banks, impose an embargo on arms sales and restrict trade of high-tech energy products and “dual use” technology that has both civilian and defence applications.

“Putin will have no sleepless nights because of these sanctions,” muttered Herman de Boon, chair of the Dutch flower exporters (Holland’s flower trade with Russia amounts to $400m per year), but “if peace and security in Europe are at stake, this is the only right choice.”  Though it goes against Dutch intuition and tradition to put obstacles on trade, even Fenedex – the Association of Dutch Exporters – did not complain about the sanctions.

Dutch-Russian relations date back to the period of Tsar Peter the Great in the late 17th century. In 2013 Russia and the Netherlands celebrated 400 years of cultural, diplomatic and trade relations with high level visits and hundreds of cultural and social events. Despite all the efforts of the organisers, the friendship year proved to be a real disaster and was labelled by the Guardian “the least successful diplomatic initiative in recent European history”.

Tensions over Putin’s anti-homosexuality “propaganda” policy and lack of respect for human rights, the seizure of a Greenpeace ship, the arrest of the environmental activists and a number of other incidents marred the Netherlands-Russia friendship year. Yet the Dutch kept smiling because business is business and trade must go on.

As we mourn the death of our fellow citizens, this welcoming attitude towards Russia has disappeared.

Jan Keulen is a Dutch journalist and media development consultant. He taught journalism at Rijks Universiteit Groningen, and served as general director of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.

Follow him on Twitter: @jan_keulen