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MH17 aftermath makes Russian-Dutch ties even more awkward

King Willem-Alexander, Queen Maxima and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (R) leave the Congresscentrum, Utrecht, after meeting relatives of the victims of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on July 21, 2014 in Utrecht, Netherlands. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The Dutch are reeling from one of the grimmest disasters in their modern history. The death of 193 Dutch nationals aboard Malaysia Airlines flight 17, believed to have been shot out of the sky by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine on Thursday, has shocked the small nation of some 17 million people. "The Netherlands is grieving," one Dutch lawmaker told the Associated Press. "And angry."

The Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is now in the unenviable situation of being at the forefront of a global crisis despite his nation's limited clout and capacity to punish those responsible for the tragedy. As my colleagues reported earlier Monday, Rutte led a two-hour special televised session in parliament, stressing the need to not automatically assign blame before more details emerge and the bodies and personal effects of the victims are properly repatriated.

Rutte has, though, warned that the Netherlands would pursue sanctions against those "indirectly or directly" involved in the downing of the plane. "All political, economic and financial options are on the table," he said. But that would require the difficult work of wrangling other EU partners on board.

Rutte's position is awkward not just because of the small size of his nation. The Netherlands, like much of Europe, has all sorts of cozy ties with Russia. In 2012, no European nation had a larger trade deficit with Russia than the Netherlands, despite the hundreds of millions of euros worth of flower bulbs that the Dutch export to Russia every year. Some 4,000 Dutch companies do business in Russia. Russian billionaires look to Netherlands as one of the leading spots in Europe to shelter their money, though the laws that have allowed the creation of such tax havens for Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs are now under question. And the Dutch have been looking to expand their dealings with Russia's energy companies, despite the rough geopolitical climate. Moreover, there is speculation one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's daughters, who are cloaked in secrecy, is married to a Dutchman.

But even before the crash of MH17, there were pronounced problems in the Dutch-Russian relationship. Last year, the two countries hailed 400 years of official ties -- dating back to 1613, when Russian Tsar Mikhail I first dispatched an ambassador to the Dutch republic. (Almost a century later, the more famous Russian Tsar Peter the Great enlisted Dutch help to start building up the Russian navy.)

But a year that was supposed to mark bilateral ties and cultural exchange turned conspicuously acrimonious. Concerts and ceremonial pomp with the Dutch royals were obscured by tense disputes, beginning with the controversial arrest and trial of Dutch activists aboard a Greenpeace ship that had been protesting Russian oil drilling the Arctic (concerted international pressure saw their release in June).

In early October, Dutch police stormed into the apartment of a Russian diplomat posted in the Netherlands and subdued him on reports from neighbors of domestic abuse. Putin described it as "a flagrant violation of the Vienna Convention." The Dutch eventually offered an official apology for violating the diplomat's immunity, but did not reprimand the police involved.

Less than two weeks after that incident, a senior Dutch diplomat in Moscow was tied up and beaten by two men who entered his apartment reportedly disguised as electricians. According to one report cited by the New York Times, they scrawled graffiti denigrating the Dutch stance on LGBT rights. The Dutch were outspoken in their criticism of anti-gay laws enacted by Putin's government. Thousands protested a state visit to the Netherlands made by Putin in April of last year.

By the time of the Sochi Olympics earlier this year, the Dutch seemed keen for reconciliation. A large delegation, including Rutte and Dutch King Willem-Alexander, attended the games, quaffed beer with the Russian leader and were relatively quiet about human rights.

Now, after the tragedy of MH17, critics are demanding more steel. An editorial in the Dutch weekly Elsevier called over the weekend for the deployment of Dutch special forces to secure the crash site in eastern Ukraine and allow for a proper, swift investigation of the incident. It's a scenario -- an escalation involving a NATO member deploying in a region dominated by pro-Russian fighters -- that is improbable, but echoes a desire for a tougher response. "Yes, the Netherlands is a small country, but we have powerful friends, and we are part of the strongest alliance in history," writes Dutch commentator Bas Heijne.

Rutte has perhaps got the message. On Sunday, he laid down this warning to Putin: "The Netherlands and the world will see that he does what needs to be done."


Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.



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