Putin's behaviour calls into question Dutch strategy of putting "merchant" interests first


Picture of Louise van Schaik
Louise van Schaik

Head of the Clingendael International Sustainability Centre and Senior Research Fellow at Clingendael Institute

The downing in eastern Ukraine of flight MH17 carrying nearly 200 Dutch nationals deeply shocked the Netherlands. A debate emerged on the need to punish Russian president Vladimir Putin’s government for its alleged links with the separatists accused of downing the plane. The Dutch government, which had long given priority to energy relations with Russia, faced a rude awakening. Dutch opposition to a common EU energy policy is likely to be dropped, and more ambitious renewable energy policies adopted.

The Netherlands-Russia relationship had already been tested following the impounding last year by Russian marines of the Dutch-registered ship Greenpeace vessel “Arctic Sunrise,” and a tit-for-tat diplomatic squabble that saw the detention in The Hague of a Russian diplomat who had behaved violently against his children and then the harassment in Moscow of a Dutch Diplomat.

The Netherlands has been the EU’s biggest importer of Russian goods; about 15% of the products entering the port of Rotterdam were last year of Russian origin, and in The Hague policymakers had envisaged a future in which very finite Dutch gas and oil reserves would gradually be replaced by Russian imports. For Dutch agro-food producers, Russia was considered a key growth market and Russians also received a warm welcome from investment funds in The Netherlands.

The Netherlands’ about-turn on Russia saw it become overnight a staunch promoter of tough EU sanctions against Moscow. A key issue now is how the Netherlands will adjust. The government is gradually awakening to the idea that its long-standing opposition to a common European energy policy may well have to change. It suddenly realises that energy is not a normal market commodity, and for future negotiations over energy contracts the Netherlands may do better to stand behind the much greater weight of the EU. And Dutch consumers may realise that renewables and energy-saving policies are not just optional luxuries for saving the environment, but keys to a much-needed European energy security strategy.

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