The Dutch Disaster

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the Future of Dutch-Russian Relations

A Dutch flag hangs at half-mast as a sign of respect for those killed in the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, July 19, 2014
A Dutch flag hangs at half-mast as a sign of respect for those killed in the downed Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, July 19, 2014. (David van Dam / Courtesy Reuters)

It was supposed to be a landmark year for Dutch-Russian relations. But in the fall of 2013, a government-sponsored celebration of the two countries’ centuries-long ties ended on an odd note. In November, Dutch King Willem-Alexander stopped by the Kremlin for a friendly visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin. At the time, Russia was holding a Dutch-flagged Greenpeace ship and its crew on charges of piracy (later downgraded to hooliganism). And, in the Netherlands, gay-rights groups were protesting the visit in light of Russia’s strict laws against homosexual “propaganda.” The Guardian was not exaggerating when it described Netherlands-Russia Year 2013, as the celebration was called, as “a strong contender for the least successful diplomatic initiative in recent European history.” 

The downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, which resulted in the deaths of 193 Dutch nationals, puts the failed Netherlands-Russia Year 2013 in a new light. Out to earn a dollar on the Russian natural resource trade, European nations such as the Netherlands have long kept smiling as the Kremlin has continued to humiliate them. But now the airline disaster, combined with Moscow’s attempts to cover up its role in the tragedy rather than helping recover the bodies, will likely force Europe to get real about Moscow.

For the Netherlands, the story starts in 2006, when Russia insisted that Royal Dutch Shell renegotiate the terms of its Sakhalin-2 project, an effort to tap and export the oil under Russia’s Sakhalin Island -- the largest combined oil and gas project in the world. At the time, Royal Dutch Shell held a 55 percent stake in the project, Japan’s Mitsui held 25 percent, and Japan’s Mitsubishi held 20 percent. Moscow, without any stake at all, felt cheated. By presenting Shell with a bill for $10 billion in trumped-up environmental damages, it managed to force Shell and its partners to sell off a 50 percent stake in the project to Russia’s Gazprom for $7.45 billion. The international partners’ shares were halved, and Royal Dutch Shell became a minority shareholder. According to New York Times, Shell’s chief executive, Jeroen van der Veer, rather than fighting Putin, merely thanked him for his “support.” The Times’ headline: “Putin’s Assertive Diplomacy Is Seldom Challenged.”

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