The Netherlands now joins the European countries that significantly changed their stance towards Ukraine during the war. The country, known to many due to the so-called "Dutch referendum," which almost derailed the Association Agreement. The country that traditionally viewed skeptical Kyiv's security integration into pan-European structures. The country that unexpectedly became one of the main donors to the Armed Forces of Ukraine and a supporter of Ukraine's EU accession.
More precisely, this support came from the government of Mark Rutte, who notably demonstrated a pro-Ukrainian stance. He also managed to make the decision to send Dutch F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine.
However, Rutte's government is now stepping down with the new elections in the autumn. Will this change affect all the agreements, including the transfer of aircraft?
European Pravda asked this question the Minister of Defence of the Netherlands, Kajsa Ollongren, who visited Kyiv this week.
"All preconditions must be met before we send F-16s to Ukraine"
– Kajsa, good to see you here in Kyiv. We've already got the first jet in Ukraine that you have brought, right?
– Well, I must confess it was just a model of the F-16.
I handed it to my colleague, Minister Reznikov.
But, of course, it's the symbol of what we hope to achieve very soon, which is having trained Ukrainian pilots and Ukrainian technicians, and then being able to transfer our F-16s to you to strengthen Ukrainian Air Force.
– When do we expect to have in Ukraine those F-16s that are bigger than this model?
– As soon as possible.
We have already started the training jointly with Denmark and several other countries. This training is something new to us. We have to build it up so that you will have enough trained personnel to actually use the F-16s.
Then, of course, the infrastructure is very important. Ukraine is working on having the right infrastructure for these jets and for very advanced weapon system.
And all the time, we discuss that with Washington because they have to decide. It's an American system. So, they make decisions not only on the jets but also on the weapons.
Although we're doing this in a parallel. We know that it takes time.
By our assessment, training will take six to eight months.
– Ukrainians are faster!
– Absolutely! But six to eight months is extremely fast. No one has done it that fast before. That is the timeframe we are looking at. But in the meantime we can prepare everything to have the transfer ready.
– Is there a chance we will have first F-16 by the end of this year?
– From the Netherlands side, we want to have these preconditions met first.
So that we have the trained crews, we know that the infrastructure is in place and we have everything needed, not only the airplanes but also the spare parts and weapons.
Being realistic, we’re looking at next year.
Denmark, of course, decides for itself when their transfer will be, but the main focus is to make it happen as soon as possible, but making sure that you have the capability you need.
– How many of F-16s are you ready to provide to Ukrainian Air Force?
– We are transitioning from F-16s to F-35s. At a certain moment, because of the war in Ukraine, we decided not to sell them.
We have 42 of them but some of those airplanes will be used to train Ukrainian pilots. The others we will transfer to Ukraine.
– Why do you need to leave those "training" jets in the Netherlands after you provide training to Ukrainian pilots?
– Because you always continue training.
For as long as you use F-16s, you will train new pilots, and you will have the need for also this training center. We have always done that also with our pilots for 40 years. You can’t train just one batch and then stop the training. It has to be a continuous process.
It's not going to be necessarily in the Netherlands. We’re looking at the training center in Romania.
– We know that these F-16s are not the most modern. There is a possibility to equip them with better radars. Do you consider such an upgrade before they have been sent to Ukraine?
– That's a very technical question. Of course we've also been doing upgrades while using F-16.
But our technicians and our military are looking into that also together with the Americans to make sure that once we can transfer the airplanes – you get what you have trained on and you know how to use them also in fight.
"We understand now what you are fighting for"
– In 2016, I covered the Netherlands referendum against EU Association with Ukraine. I remember your party D66 was pro-Ukrainian even that time, but the Netherlands, in general, were not that much with Ukraine. Why has it changed that much now?
– First of all, it’s because we feel very strongly about international rules and territorial integrity – not by chance The Hague is the capital of international law. Aggression can never be rewarded.
The other reason is a strong connection to what is happening now to your country. We know it from the Second World War when we were occupied by the Nazis.
And a third reason, sadly, is the MH17 that has brought our two countries together.
When the airplane was shot down, Ukraine was very, very helpful for us to get the people back. And that has formed a connection.
The support in the Netherlands for Ukraine now is very strong in society, in politics, and it is still there a year and a half after the large-scale invasion.
I can even say that despite elections coming up, that will not change the strong support for Ukraine in the Netherlands, whatever the outcome will be.
– Are you completely sure that regardless of the outcome, an F-16 deal wouldn't be reverted in any way?
– I cannot imagine that because there is really a wide support for it.
Even after our political crisis that led to a decision to have new elections, the government supported by the Parliament declared that elections will not affect our support for Ukraine.
That’s why being in a caretaker government, I don't feel like a caretaker Minister of Defence because I have and will continue to support Ukraine and the elections will not change that.
Of course as a democratic country, we have to wait for the vote and for the outcome, but I'm quite certain that it will not change our attitude towards Ukraine.
We have shown our approach, as we have sent you 2 billion euro in defence assistance. We know that Ukraine must keep the fight up as long as Russian aggression continues.
And, of course, here you depend upon your partners.
We are proud to be an important partner to Ukraine. We intend to continue with that.
– At the Dutch referendum in 2016, the key issue was our relations with the EU and also security. Now, Ukraine is about to start negotiations with the EU, about to be a NATO member. I hope so. Does mainstream Dutch opinion support Ukraine’s EU and NATO membership?
– I think so.
Politically, we have already welcomed Ukraine as a candidate for the European Union. And in Vilnius we have also decided upon the future for Ukraine and NATO.
Also, this war has been a wake-up call for many European countries. A large-scale war in the heart of Europe made people realise that Ukraine belongs to the European family, that you share our European values, that you share our common goals of democracy and rule of law.
In 2016, the questions at the referendum were really not about Ukraine. Ukraine was perhaps a country that we didn't really know that well.
Now we know what you are fighting for. We feel a very strong bond. So future of Ukraine in the European family as part of the European Union, and now also at the NATO table in the NATO-Ukraine Council.
It's a big step.
"If Russia is not stopped now, it will not stop in Ukraine."
– Don't you believe that Ukraine will be a NATO member sooner than the EU member?
– We will see. I don't know...
– Your personal opinion.
– I welcome Ukraine in both organisations.
Now, we have to take it step by step. An important step is having the Ukraine-NATO Council. For the EU, there are all kinds of conditions to be met. We see, while you are at war, your parliament is working on new legislation to prepare for EU membership.
So I wouldn't dare to say how fast you will get there, but I do see that Ukraine is very ambitious, so it wouldn't surprise me if it's going to be much faster than other countries that we've seen entering the EU.
– We understand that level of support we enjoy can’t last forever. People get tired. They can say: this war is far away. Why should we pay for it? The war can last for years. How can we tackle that fatigue?
– I don't see it now, but I think it's something we have to be aware of.
If someone would ask me those questions, I would say: if someone is really tired of the war, it's the Ukrainians themselves because they have to fight. They have to deal with this Russian aggression. They are losing people. They are feeling unsafe because of air attacks.
The second part of my answer is that if Russia is not stopped, if Russia is rewarded by their aggression, then it's not going to stop either in Ukraine or in this part of Europe.
At some point also we’ll become directly threatened by Russian aggression within the countries within the European Union, the NATO countries.
And that is why we must do our best to help you keep it up and make sure that Russia doesn't win.
– So, do you believe that Russia can even attack NATO members?
– You see what kind of regime there is in Russia now.
It’s very aggressive, with the sort of idea of revenge in going back to old times, if you look at the country that once was Soviet Union, the Tsarist Empire.
That means that the eastern part of NATO, the eastern part of European Union, is directly threatened by that thought.
And that it's important that we keep stressing this.
It's not only a problem for Ukraine. It's a European problem. It's also a NATO problem.
– You are here in Kyiv for the Crimea platform. In what way, you think, should Ukraine regain Crimea during this war?
– We want to show our solidarity and our support for the Ukrainian course. And the Ukrainian course is, of course, to restore territorial integrity.
It's that simple: we have never recognised the annexation of Crimea.
Ukraine has the same borders as in 1991 when you became an independent country again. That has not changed.
– But there is no clear answer to my question. People in Ukraine are afraid that some partners would push us gently to the ceasefire and negotiations.
– Our support is your right to self-defence. Our support is your territorial integrity, recognised by many countries around the world.
We know where the borders were at the time, in 1991.
So, for me, it's not a question. The only thing is that you are fighting the war. So, Ukraine has to decide upon how and how long to fight. It is your decision.
– But we can fight for Crimea.
– It’s perfect!
– Don't you oppose it?
– I insisted on the previous question because we know that after you send F-16s, Ukraine will be limited in their use. For instance, attack on military targets in the Russian territory will be prohibited. We see that some limitations are set by our Western partners.
– I think we have to be very careful about that because we are in the phase of deciding on conditions for the F-16s to be transferred. These are conditions on the infrastructure, training, weapons and using the weapons.
We have not decided on the exact conditions. It's also not only up to us: United States has an important voice.
But for me it's very simple.
When we sent weapon to Ukraine, we should know that you use it for self-defence. As long as what you're doing is self-defence, then you use them in the best way you can.
– That means that we can use them in Crimea.
That means that we have not decided yet on the conditions. However, as long as it concerns your army's actions within self-defence and for restoring your territorial integrity within the borders you previously had, it is not my place to determine your war strategy.
Interviewed by Sergiy Sydorenko,
Editor, European Pravda
Video by Volodymyr Oliinyk