Last weekend, I found myself in De Baile, a leading Dutch center of culture and debate discussing the European response to the war in Ukraine with three politicians: two from the Netherlands, plus one from Belarus, who lives in exile.
It was an interesting if unsurprising conversation: Franak Viacorka, the Belarusian opposition politician, made a strong case for an urgent need to identify and close the loopholes in sanctions that both the Russian and Belarusian regimes are using to survive.
The Dutch politicians, parliamentarians for the national and European parliaments, talked about the Netherlands’ response to the war: their optimism about the Dutch plan to wean the country off Russian energy and the European determination to stand by Ukraine whatever Zelensky’s government decides to do next, including, they both reiterated, the return of the Crimea to Ukrainian control.
But forty minutes into the discussion, I found myself increasingly aware of an elephant in the room. Among all Europeans, it was the Dutch who had experienced first-hand the effects of Putin’s war in Ukraine when in 2014, a Russian anti-aircraft Buk missile shot down flight MH-17 killing all 298 passengers onboard, including more than 80 children.
More than two thirds of the passengers of the plane were Dutch — the flight was en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Yet during the discussion of the Ukraine war, MH-17 simply did not come up.
I couldn’t understand why. MH-17 has been referred to as Holland’s 9/11 and, relative to overall population, more Dutch people were killed in Ukraine than in the attacks on twin towers.
Covering MH-17 at the time in Eastern Ukraine, I remember vividly both the horror of the crash site and the utter panic of Russian-backed separatists in Donbas who feared Western response. Everyone expected that MH-17 would become a pivotal moment in the way that Europe relates to Putin’s Russia.
But what happened next was: nothing. The Kremlin responded with a shrug and a tsunami of disinformation that blamed Ukrainians for the attack and successfully confused public opinion both at home and abroad.
To set the record straight, the Dutch launched an incredibly thorough investigation that proved beyond reasonable doubt what everyone following the story (and investigative outlet Bellingcat’s groundbreaking deep dive into it) already knew: the anti-aircraft missile that shot down the plane belonged to a Russian army unit and was brought into separatist-held Ukraine from Russia.
Since then, there have been plenty of statements of concern (and the case has now gone to court), but no consequences for the perpetrators of the attack, no justice for the families of the victims and, as I found out, apparently no attempt from the politicians to connect the dots between the war now and the Dutch tragedy then.
Eventually I asked the question. “In retrospect, couldn’t the Netherlands have done more? Would we be even having this discussion about the horrors of this latest invasion and deaths of innocent Ukrainians, had the Dutch government pushed the EU to impose sanctions on Russia after the deaths of its own people eight years ago?
There was a moment of awkward silence. “Dutch were naive,” said Reuben Breklmans, a member of Dutch parliament for the conservative-liberal VVD party. “We thought that as long as we keep trading with Russia and we keep relations like that in the end it will improve our attitude towards us. That has been part of our Dutch policy and it shows that it was a mistake. In retrospect we should have been much stricter in the Netherlands and in the rest of Europe”
“As a small country we did what we could,” added Thijs Reuten, a member of the European Parliament for the PvdA (Labor) party. He said the Netherlands focused on a unified response but at the time it was simply “not the time to push for sanctions,” he said. Both politicians said they did not want to instrumentalize the pain of the victims in pursuit of the current political agenda.
I noticed journalist Franka Hummels grimacing in apparent disbelief as MP Reuben Brecklmans said that families of the victims of MH-17 were happy with the Dutch government’s handling of the case.
“That’s simply not true,” Hummels told me later, on a phone call. “I am in touch with some of the families and I am following the story closely, and the families being happy about the way death of their loved ones has been handled is absolutely not true,” she said.
She told me that she was frustrated by the reaction of the politicians in our discussion, but also by the way Dutch media has covered MH-17.
“Dutch media covers Ukraine, and it covers the trial of MH-17 but it doesn’t link them,” she said.
“In the Netherlands, the MH17 is covered like a natural disaster, a tragic incident that happened but doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with what is going on today,” Hummels said.
Several audience members came up to me after the session ended and said they were angry about that statement.
“It’s not about weaponizing the victims, it’s about connecting what happened then to what is happening now,” one woman told me. “It’s all part of the same war, and yet somehow we never hear it.”