F-16s, Ukraine's "irreversible" path to NATO and negotiations with Russia: an interview with the Netherlands’ new defence minister

Monday, 8 July 2024 — For European Pravda
PHOTO: Nararii Mazyliuk

There’s been a change of government in the Netherlands, a country that has pledged to deliver F-16 fighter jets and a Patriot air defence system to Ukraine and is one of the key suppliers of military aid to the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). In early July, after a very long coalition-building process, a government headed by a prime minister from the far-right (Ukraine-sceptical) Freedom Party came into power.

Will the new Dutch government keep all the promises made by its predecessors?

The new defence minister, Ruben Brekelmans, has given a concise answer through his actions: a few days after his appointment, he made his first visit to Kyiv and Odesa, accompanied by the new foreign minister, Caspar Veldkamp.

This continued support for Ukraine was not unexpected: even before taking office, Brekelmans was an advocate of providing weapons to Ukraine, and this was one of the arguments for his appointment during the formation of the complex coalition government. But the details matter.


In his first interview in office, which he gave to European Pravda, the defence minister outlined his intentions to back Ukraine.

In this interview, he talked to European Pravda about when the long-awaited F-16s will be seen in Ukrainian skies, what Ukraine will receive at the NATO summit in Washington, and what the Netherlands’ red lines are in supporting Ukraine.

"If we reduce our level of support, then Russia is winning"

Before your appointment, you were one of the advocates for backing Ukraine in parliament. Your first visit as Dutch Defence Minister is to Kyiv. What does this trip mean to you?

I've been here two times before, but to me, it was of key importance to go in my first week. Even one hour after we could leave The Hague, we decided to take the plane and go to Ukraine as soon as possible because we wanted to convey a very clear message that we will keep supporting Ukraine in every possible dimension.

What I see now in my third visit is that it's still very heavy. Russia keeps attacking, is using more missiles, more heavy missiles, also more complicated drones. 

So it's not only a battle of attrition, it's also a battle of innovation. 

What I'm also happy to see is that the fighting spirit of Ukrainians is still there, that people are very resilient, that they are still very energised to win this war. It is strengthening my position that it is so important to keep supporting Ukraine.

Many believe that the war in Ukraine has reached a stalemate. It is indeed a difficult positional war. How would you characterise the current war? What is the balance of power, who is winning now, and what do we need to do to win this war?

There is still very heavy fighting and some areas in which Russia is winning a bit, for example, the Donbas. We also see that Ukraine is regaining some territory, for example around Kharkiv. 

The lesson that we learned over the last couple of years is that if we reduce our level of support, then Russia is winning. So we can’t stop supporting Ukraine. 

There is not one weapon system that can bring total victory. We need to keep supporting Ukraine in all dimensions. We also need to make sure that the strength and the perseverance of Russia is diminished over time and make sure that the position of Ukraine is getting stronger and stronger. 

We need to also keep emphasising to Dutch people how important it is not only for Ukraine, but also for our freedom and security. But we should not raise expectations too much that there will be a very easy victory.

In the Netherlands, there is now a new, diverse coalition that raises some concerns. Is the level of support as high as it was two years ago? How does Dutch society view this war now?

I see that support is still very strong and broad. 

If you look at our parliament, there is still a wide majority to support Ukraine. Even parties that are more sceptical now in the coalition also support Ukraine. 

What we do see, though, is after two years, people are getting used to war. The media is getting used to this war. So we need to find ways to keep the attention on the war in Ukraine, make sure that people are not distracted by football competitions or anything else. 

Therefore, we need to keep explaining how important it is not only for Ukraine, but also essential for our own security. If we keep telling them that and also have conversations about it in our parliament, also with the Dutch population, I'm sure that we can keep the support for Ukraine on a very solid level.

PHOTO: Nazarii Mazyliuk

"I expect F-16s to be in the Ukrainian air soon"

We interviewed your predecessor, Kajsa Ollongren, twice. And of course, the first question was about the F-16s. So now it's your turn. Initially, the delivery of the F-16s was scheduled for May, then July. What exactly is causing the delay in delivering the F-16s to Ukraine?

Training of a Dutch pilot for F-16 normally takes five years, or even more to do all the complicated manoeuvres. We are now trying to do this with Ukrainian pilots within one year. It is an amazing performance, actually, that Ukrainian pilots are able to master this very complicated system so quickly. But it's not easy. It's not something which you can say: "Okay, you will be ready on that particular day." 

There are many other things that need to be in place regarding infrastructure and maintenance, also making sure that all the technical skills are there. So it's not an easy task, but we are doing this as soon as possible. 

I can say that I expect the F-16s to be in the air quickly, in the short term. And if we are able to do that in the short term, I think it has been an amazing result over the last year. We have done this much faster than we would normally do in the Netherlands.

It's clear that the F-16s will be priority targets, with Russia likely to target these aircraft. Recent missile attacks on Ukrainian airfields underscore this threat. Do you have an understanding of how to protect the F-16s in Ukraine?

I cannot share specific details because it's really at the heart of Ukrainian security.

But what it does show is that air defenсe becomes even more important.

That's why it's also an extra call for action, not only for the Netherlands to deliver what we promised, but also to make sure that other partners and other countries are delivering as well. 

And Ukraine also asked us to keep playing this frontrunner role and to convince other countries to also join the Air Defence Coalition and to deliver either a full Patriot system or parts of that system or any other air defence system that Ukraine can use. I'm also looking forward to playing that role myself, to convince other countries. It's something that I will discuss with my colleagues at the Washington NATO summit.

Your next trip as Minister of Defence will be to the NATO summit. Of course, we don't expect an invitation to join the Alliance in Washington. But in your opinion, what would be a good outcome of the summit for Ukraine?

It's important that NATO shows a clear commitment to Ukrainian security. I know NATO wants to play a more active and more coordinating role. 

It's also good if NATO shows financial commitment in the longer term. It is important that we show that we keep delivering the weapons and systems that Ukraine needs. I know that Ukraine wants to see a commitment from NATO. 

We also need to find the right words to describe that Ukraine’s NATO membership will take time, but in the end, it's an irreversible path. It's an inevitable path. 

Do you think that the appointment of Mark Rutte, the long-time Prime Minister of the Netherlands, as NATO Secretary General will change the situation regarding Ukraine positively? Will it open doors for us?

I would like to point out two things. 

The good thing about Mark Rutte is that he is personally extremely committed to Ukraine's security and also to supporting Ukraine. I'm sure that he will spend every minute helping Ukraine with his energy and his positive attitude.

And second, he is able to bring countries together. He has done it in the Netherlands with different coalitions, but also internationally. He is able to convince other countries. 

So the last Secretary General has done an amazing job, but I think Mark Rutte will also do it in his personal way.

"A training mission in Ukraine? We are not against it in principle"

Kajsa Ollongren brought representatives of three Dutch technology companies to Ukraine, ready to partner with Ukrainian drone manufacturers. The Netherlands is part of the drone coalition. Do you see any results from this partnership?

There have been contacts between those companies and also very innovative Ukrainian companies. There have been some positive exchanges, some positive developments. 

I think Ukraine is moving very fast with innovation in radar systems, drones, new types of weapon systems. 

The Netherlands can help with this because we have certain technologies that are useful to Ukraine. But also – and that's what my predecessor also said –

Ukraine is fighting this battle, is fighting this war, and the methods and the innovations are changing every day. We can also learn from this experience on the battlefield.

There are some positive synergies and some positive exchanges there. And I was also inspired by the things that I heard from Ukrainian companies today.

In the Netherlands, when we acquire equipment, we have procedures that sometimes take multiple years, while people who are fighting on the battlefield here tell me that the methods that are used are literally changing every week. We in the Netherlands also need to understand that reality. 

We are now thinking about our NATO commitment, for example, in 5-7 years, but we need to make sure that we are innovating and that we are not planning for the war of yesterday. 

I would also like to talk about red lines. Our partners have different views on Ukraine's victory due to the red lines they have drawn. While President Macron talks about the possibility of sending French troops to Ukraine, some countries are opposed to even providing Ukraine with long-range missiles. Are there similar red lines in the Netherlands?

We need to do everything to avoid direct confrontation between Russia and NATO. That's beneficial for everyone. 

I know that Macron proposed or suggested having a training mission in Ukraine. It's something that we are looking at. We have not said that we are against it in principle. We need to be very careful about what the benefits are, also the downsides, the potential risks. And second, we also need to make sure that there is international support for this.

If you do something like this, there needs to be a broad international coalition, also supported by our key allies within NATO. 

We are just starting this international conversation. I don't expect any decisions to be taken in the short term. We are having our first conversations about this with France and with others. 

Our European partners have very different views on what Ukraine's victory in this war looks like. In Ukraine, we talk about the 1991 borders and NATO and EU membership. What does Ukraine's victory mean to you personally?

I hope that Ukraine's victory will mean that someday the entire territory of Ukraine will be free, and that every Russian occupier will leave the territory of Ukraine. 

But if that turns out to be impossible, then Ukraine’s victory for me means that there is a negotiated outcome accepted by Ukraine, supported by Ukraine, and initiated by Ukraine. If the people of Ukraine say: "Okay, this is something that we support and it's something that we accept," then it might also be something that I from the Netherlands can support. 

But it's not something that we as the Netherlands or the EU or the West can decide for Ukraine. It needs to be an outcome that is first initiated and then accepted and supported by Ukraine.

And what about EU and NATO membership? Is that a part of Ukraine’s victory?

Yes. Of course, we said that Ukraine is part of the European family. So we are working on its EU accession. I know it's a very long process, but Ukraine is now starting the negotiations. 

And regarding NATO, we have said that the path towards membership is irreversible. But we cannot say how long it will take.

But it's important also for people in Ukraine to demonstrate that they have a bright future ahead, and it also means to be part of Europe.


Sevgil Musaieva

Editor-in-Chief, Ukrainska Pravda

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