Despite Plane Deaths, Dutch Careful Not to Antagonize Russia

Almost 200 of their nationals died in Ukraine, but the Dutch are reluctant to blame Russia.

Even as pro-Russian separatists were in all likelihood responsible for bringing down a Malaysia Airlines jet on Thursday, killing all 193 Dutch passengers on board, the Netherlands’ prime minister, Mark Rutte, has been careful not to blame Russia outright. “Pointing fingers only reduces the chance for a broad, independent investigation,” he argued on Friday.

While other world leaders, including American president Barack Obama and Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia, whose country lost 27 nationals on the Malaysia Airlines flight, had already blamed Ukraine’s separatists or even implicated Russia, Rutte still insisted on Friday night there was “no exact information on what caused the disaster.”

The liberal politician did promise he would “personally” ensure the perpetrators were prosecuted and punished, “if it becomes clear this was an attack.”

Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, who spoke with Rutte by phone earlier in the day, had already described the downing of the jet as a terrorist attack by then.

One reason for the Dutch to be cautious is that a confrontation with Russia could, as Rutte said, make it more difficult for a proper investigation to take place.

Frans Timmermans, the Netherlands’ foreign minister who is rumored to be candidate to succeed Britain’s Catherine Ashton as the European Union’s foreign policy chief later this year, arrived in Kiev on Friday with a team of forensic experts to aid in the investigation. Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had earlier been denied full access to the crash site by militants.

Russia, even if it still denies Western accusations that it backed the separatists with a view to dismembering Ukraine, might be able to convince the rebels to let the investigators do their work.

Rutte must also be mindful of deep business ties. Russia is the Netherlands’ third largest trading partner. While much of the rest of Europe seeks to wean itself off Russian oil and gas, Russia last year invested €800 billion in the construction of an oil terminal in the port of Rotterdam. 30 percent of crude oil and 45 percent of oil products shipped through the Netherlands’ largest harbor originates in Russia.

The Dutch are now the second largest producers of natural gas in Europe, after Norway, and export much of it to Germany. But conventional supplies are running out. Estimates are that the country will have to import gas in as little as ten years’ time. If it is to remain a pivotal distributor of gas in Europe — and as long as the United States won’t export more liquefied natural gas overseas — the Netherlands must stay on good terms with Russia.

Despite these commercial interests, Dutch-Russian relations were strained last year when the two countries officially celebrated four hundred years of diplomatic relations. Two weeks before Russian president Vladimir Putin arrived in Amsterdam to mark the festivities — and was met by large demonstrations against his country’s ban on gay “propaganda” — a court in The Hague sentenced a former Foreign Ministry worker to twelve years imprisonment for spying for the Russians.

Russia had earlier detained thirty Greenpeace activists, two of them Dutch, in Murmansk for obstructing oil and gas drilling in the North Pole region. Dutch police later apprehended a Russian diplomat on suspicion of child abuse. A week later, unidentified men broke into a Dutch diplomat’s Moscow apartment, tied him up and allegedly painted a heart with lipstick on a mirror with the words “LGBT” (an initialism that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) underneath it. The assailants were never found.