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.”

The Netherlands, figuring that its remaining 27.5 percent share of the project was better than nothing, decided to grin and bear Russia’s economic aggression. In return, it has become Russia’s top export destination since 2010. The Netherlands imported $43 billion of mainly oil products from Russia in 2012, or 9.2 percent of Russia’s total exports (8.1 percent go to China, 6.5 percent to Germany, and 5.7 percent to Ukraine). Crude petroleum, processed by Dutch refineries in Rotterdam, accounts for the lion’s share. And 30 percent of crude oil and 45 percent of oil products entering Rotterdam come from Russia. Four thousand Dutch companies do business in Russia, making the Netherlands one of the top investors in Russia, with more than $63 billion put down.  

Netherlands-Russia Year 2013 was designed to celebrate all that. Yet even before November, the initiative was faring poorly. In April, the mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhard van der Laan, snubbed Putin during the president’s visit to Amsterdam, dispatching a deputy to meet with him and flying a rainbow-colored flag at half-mast at city hall. More than a thousand gay-rights activists picketed Putin’s meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Russia responded with a weeks-long media campaign that painted Netherlands as a country run by pedophiles and hashish dealers.

Things got worse in September, when the Dutch culture minister opened a major exhibit of works by Piet Mondrian in Moscow and unexpectedly used the occasion to blast Russia for its policies on gay rights, expounding on the connection between artistic creativity and cultural freedom. On September 19, Russia’s Federal Security Service, the successor organization to the KGB, seized and arrested the crew of the Arctic Sunrise, the Dutch-flagged Greenpeace ship.

Then, in October, Dutch police arrested Dmitry Borodin, the number-two diplomat in Russia’s embassy in The Hague, based on reports from neighbors that he was drunk and hitting his children. The police visit was precipitated by a car accident in which Borodin’s wife had slammed into four parked cars. Borodin claimed that the police beat him with a baton and that his arrest violated his diplomatic immunity. Putin demanded an apology. The Dutch came up short when the government acknowledged that Borodin should not have been arrested but refused to sanction the policeman who arrested him.

Ten days later, Russia retaliated. Two unidentified men barged into the apartment of the Netherlands’ deputy chief of mission in Moscow, beat him, tied him up, and scrawled anti-gay graffiti on his mirror. Onno Elderenbosch, the diplomat, was gay. He wasn’t even the first Western diplomat to be harassed in Moscow. Anthony Brenton, the United Kingdom’s former ambassador, had been vexed by a pro-Kremlin youth group for months in 2006. And U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul was likewise subjected to a campaign of harassment that coincided with the supposed “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations.

This was the context in which Willem-Alexander visited Putin in the Kremlin. He and Rutte agreed that, despite the challenges of the Netherlands-Russia Year 2013, friendly ties with the Kremlin needed to be preserved.

Fast forward to July 2014. Almost 200 Dutch citizens were shot down over Russian-separatist-held territories in Eastern Ukraine. Evidence points to Russia: video of SA–11 missile launchers being sent back to Russia after the disaster, audio tapes of separatist leaders discussing who shot down the plane, and a separatist commander’s social media page claiming credit, a message that was later taken down after it turned out the plane was not a Ukrainian AN–26, as first thought. After solemn promises to help, Russia has done little to secure the crime scene, appearing to cover up evidence of its involvement instead.

This may be one humiliation too many. 

On July 19, Rutte expressed shock and outrage at the way the bodies were handled. He stated that Putin “must now take responsibility vis-a-vis the rebels,” a vague but telling statement that seemed to demand more than just securing the crime scene. He and British Prime Minister David Cameron called for a European Union review of relations with Russia. Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans issued a stern criticism of the handling of the crash scene before the United Nations Security Council. It is too early to tell if European countries with deep Russia ties like the Netherlands are ready to act. Yet it is clear that Western countries erred by accepting previous episodes of Russian thuggery, which were designed to soften them up and teach them who was boss.  

The Netherlands and Europe need to get tough with Russia and use their overwhelming economic leverage to force Russia to respect European values, European economic practices, and European security norms. Rotterdam can find other oil to refine. Russia cannot do without European markets and European wealth havens. Europe needs to set and enforce standards and should not tolerate the constant transgressions and humiliations -- or the many ways in which Russia thumbs its nose at Europe through its media or its ignorance of European demands. If the Netherlands and the rest of Europe impose tough sanctions now, when the next crisis rolls around Russia will respond to, not flout, European concerns and at least hurry to clean up the mess it leaves behind.  

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  • MITCHELL A. ORENSTEIN is Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Northeastern University. He is also an affiliate of both the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies and the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.
  • More By Mitchell A. Orenstein