Dutch anger over MH17 crash aftermath could swing EU sanctions

The Netherlands, which holds something of a swing vote in the EU, had argued for caution in sanctioning Russia. But the downing of MH17 killed nearly 200 Dutch citizens – and has hardened attitudes ahead of an EU meeting Tuesday.

Paul Vreeker/United Photos/Reuters
Churchgoers observe one minute of silence after lighting some 298 candles, representing the victims of the crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 plane, before a mass in the Saint Bavo cathedral in Haarlem on Sunday, July 20, 2014.

The missile that most likely brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, killing nearly 200 Dutch citizens, “was fired indirectly from the Amsterdam Zuidas.”

Zuidas is the city's business district – and the top story in De Volkskrant, a leading Dutch newspaper, alleges that the missile was supplied by a Russian company registered there to take advantage of Dutch tax breaks.

The report has not been verified independently. But the coverage points to mounting public anger in the Netherlands over the crash in the separatist-controlled swath of eastern Ukraine. That anger grew over the weekend as pro-Russia rebels impeded access to the site for international investigation and recovery of bodies. On Monday, Dutch investigators were finally able to examine bodies being held at a railway station in the town of Torez.

Until now, the Netherlands has advised European caution in pressing Moscow to dial back tensions in Ukraine. But fueled by its fury over the handling of MH17, the country that has always been seen as a barometer of the European zeitgeist could swing the discussion as EU foreign ministers meet Tuesday to consider a ratcheted-up response to Russia. 

Ko Colijn, the director of the Clingendael Institute of International Relations in The Hague, says the tragedy has moved the Dutch from the “Italian” to the “Polish” camp – in other words, from cautious to hardline players on Russia.  “I think the Dutch can convince at least some of the foot-dragging members in the EU to follow a more severe line now,” he says. “In the end this will result in a really significant change of stance.”

The typically restrained Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, in a statement over the weekend, had harsh words for Russian President Vladimir Putin as investigations were stymied. “I want to see results in the form of unhindered access and a speedy recovery of the victims’ remains. This is now priority No. 1. Putin must take responsibility vis-à-vis the rebels and show the Netherlands and the world that he is doing what is expected of him," he said.

Prime Minister Rutte's anger comes as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and French President François Hollande talked on the phone over the weekend and agreed that “the EU must reconsider its approach to Russia and that foreign ministers should be ready to impose further sanctions on Russia when they meet on Tuesday," according to a statement.

The Netherlands, like other EU countries, has significant economic ties with Moscow, from the energy company Shell to the exposure of Dutch banks, says Andy Langenkamp, a political analyst with ECR Research in the Netherlands. Its role as a tax haven for Russian investors has been under question since Russia annexed Crimea in March. It also has what it considers a “special relationship” with Russia. Last year, the two countries celebrated 400 years of “friendship." While it was also a fraught year, capped by the arrest of Dutch Greenpeace activists in Russian waters, the Netherlands has pushed for dialogue and diplomacy, instead of pushing Putin in a corner.

But after the crash, the anguished pleas of relatives – one of whom addressed Putin directly in an interview with the Associated Press, saying “Mr. Putin, send my children home. Send them home, please," have tested the nation’s patience. Many blame Putin for not pressing armed separatists to allow for a thorough and credible investigation.

The mood was reflected in the nation’s headlines and editorials over the weekend. De Telegraaf ran a front-page picture of pro-Russian rebels under the title “Murderers.” The De Volkskrant story today, based on information from the news website 925.nl, is one of the most-read stories of the day. Some newspapers have even called for NATO troops to be dispatched.

That won’t happen, says Mr. Langenkamp. "But it shows you that the mood is changing. The public anger is really great. With 200 [casualties], almost every town or city has a story with people involved.”

Some editorials have taken aim at Rutte for being too cautious. Bas Heijne, a Dutch writer and columnist for NRC Handelsblad, wrote in Politico: “The truth is that for too long the Dutch government has coddled the dictator in Moscow, looking past Putin’s blatant offenses against human decency.” 

Mr. Colijn says that he doesn’t expect the bilateral relationship to change significantly, that today’s anger will in time give way to pragmatics. “There is an understanding for the position of the Dutch government, which …  tries to separate emotions from the most effective way of operating in politics,” he says.

But he says that in Brussels, home to the EU parliament, the Netherlands has already taken on a new role. “I think we are on the verge of accepting that in order to harm Mr. Putin,” he says, “we have to hurt ourselves first.”

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