“We are not fighting, but we see it as our war”

Even before Putin invades Ukraine, the cabinet is prepared for the country’s war with Russia. A reconstruction of the turbulent months when the ministers had to make decisions.

Hanne Keultjes and John Hoedeman

Faces are tight in Torentje. Prime Minister Mark Rutte and a handful of officials stare at a phone. From the speaker comes a familiar voice from Kiev: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. ‘Watch out for Volodimir, take care of yourself,’ Rutte presses him to the heart.

When the connection is broken, those present look at each other. Someone brings coffee, wait for the next meeting. They can get back to their everyday life. But will they ever hear Zelensky’s voice again? An official: “Maybe his body will be somewhere on the street tomorrow.”

Over the past six months, we have spoken to sixteen people involved in the Netherlands and abroad – ministers, diplomats, civil servants, soldiers, parliamentarians and experts – to reconstruct what happened behind the scenes before and after the outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine d . February 24th.

At home on the couch in Amsterdam, Kajsa Ollongren watches Benfica-Ajax in the Champions League with her sons on Wednesday evening, February 23. After the draw, the Minister of Defense does not go to sleep unsatisfied. Shortly after four o’clock the phone rings. She hears the voice of Major General Jan Swillens, the head of the military intelligence and security service. “They have invaded on all fronts.”

Ollongren immediately calls Prime Minister Mark Rutte out of bed in his apartment in The Hague. He seems to be awake already. The evening before, Rutte had contact with Zelenski. Was he already signaling him of impending doom?

Shortly after four o’clock, Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra’s phone also rings. Only the family calls on the landline. Now it is his private secretary who tells him that the invasion has begun.

Another world

As Hoekstra heads to The Hague, he thinks back to how he stood on the steps of Noordeinde Palace just seven weeks ago. In the back seat of his official car, Hoekstra realizes: all plans for the fourth Rutte cabinet can go in the bin. The world is different now.

Yet the war comes as no surprise. In early February, Rutte and Hoekstra visited Zelenski in Kiev. The Ukrainian president is gloomy. All signals are on red, he says, an attack is imminent. But he urges his Dutch visit: Don’t tell the outside world. Zelensky is playing nice weather in public. He is afraid of mass panic. The assumption is: if the Russians come, Ukraine will not last long. The mood is gloomy as Rutte and Hoekstra leave Kiev.

Not everyone in Europe is worried. The week before the raid, Ollongren and Hoekstra are in Munich with several European colleagues at the 58th Security Conference at the Bayerischer Hof hotel. There is skepticism about the certainty with which the Americans proclaim that the troop build-up is worrying. Didn’t they do the same in 2003 when the US falsely claimed that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? The mood is that things are not going so fast.

That changes when Ollongren travels to a meeting with defense ministers at Belvoir Castle, near Nottingham, England. A helicopter takes them there. Their meeting is interrupted by an unannounced speech by Putin. In it, he argues that Donbas is actually Russian territory. The Baltic ministers are in every state: it’s about to happen, we have to go back to our capitals now! Ollongren realizes: this is a turning point. If Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania react in this way, then we should take it seriously. About 48 hours later, the Russian invasion begins.

Blood to the limit

At NATO headquarters in Brussels, doubts are also gone. On February 23, Admiral Rob Bauer, chairman of the Military Committee, stands in his office in front of the map of Ukraine. The Russians have 180,000 men on the border, including equipment, ammunition, field hospitals. That is way over the top for an exercise. And if blood is also brought to the border, which has a limited shelf life, then there can only be one way forward: into Ukraine. The next night, Bauer is convinced that his phone will ring. He is right.

The Security and Intelligence Council (RVI) will be convened in the General Ministry on the morning of 24 February. This is where the heads of the security services are joined by the head of the armed forces Onno Eichelsheim, Prime Minister Rutte, Ollongren, Hoekstra, Minister Dilan Yesilgöz from Justice and Security and Energy Minister Rob Jetten. In this cabinet cockpit, which will be renamed ‘RVI Oek’ on March 1, everything related to Ukraine will be discussed for the rest of the year.

Meanwhile, Rutte, Hoekstra and Ollongren are constantly on the phone with foreign colleagues or boarding a plane to a European capital. The EU appears to be rarely united: unprecedented sanctions packages have been agreed, the European Peace Facility – an 11 billion fund – is being used for the first time in history to buy weapons.

In the Council of Ministers, the other line ministers are updated by the ‘war cabinet’. “We get a little foreign education every week,” says one of them. Rutte, Hoekstra and Ollongren emphasize time and again that this war on European territory will not go away by itself. “We are not fighting, but we consider it our war,” the three ministers tell anyone who will listen.

The Council of Ministers often talks about arms deliveries. Such as: is there a difference between offensive and defensive weapons in a war situation? Weapons are weapons, says Minister Ollongren, it’s about the way they are used. And Ukraine defends itself against Russian aggression.

Mark Rutte during his visit to Irpin, Ukraine, on 11 July 2022.Image ANP / EPA

The heaviest artillery

After more than a month of war, the delivery of the army’s heaviest artillery is being discussed. It’s about the armored howitzer. A cannon on track, which looks most like a tank. To explain this mechanical artillery, Ollongren has a secret weapon in the Council of Ministers: Minister of the Interior Hanke Bruins Slot. She was the head of a division of armored howitzers in Afghanistan, and ‘Hanke knows more about it than Kajsa’. Bruins Slot tells about the range of a howitzer, and its effect. It is ‘convincing’, says one attendee. In the Council of Ministers, everything is about Ukraine: first discuss, then decide. Everyone must stand behind it.

Not that there is ever any discussion. Around May, it is Jetten who asks the question: where does it stop? And is there a plan for after that? Who decides when the war is over? Ukraine, USA or Europe? Then a presentation is given with different scenarios and how the Netherlands views them. However, there are ministers who wonder how realistic it is that the conflict, which Ukraine says can only be over when Crimea, which was annexed in 2014, is liberated.

The saying is still to this day: We support Ukraine unconditionally. “It is also difficult for us to say: we will support Ukraine until the gas price rises above x euros per cubic meter,” says an involved person who follows the war from Brussels. “The importance of Russia not winning is greater than the pain we feel in our wallets.”

Because the war is also felt more and more in the Netherlands. As early as December 2021, Prime Minister Rutte will ‘order’ emergency scenarios from the Ministry of Economy and Climate. What if Putin turns off the gas completely? Everyone is still shouting: it will never happen. Rutte is not reassured: “There is someone in the Kremlin who does not think quite normally.”

Gas prices peak

The gas tap closes and the gas price rises. Every time Minister Jetten opens his phone, he sees the graph for TTF, the trading market for gas. The line peaks at the end of August. Only on Prinsjesdag will the government succumb to the pressure to moderate the worst energy increase for households and businesses.

The military complains about the enthusiasm with which the Netherlands distributes many millions of weapons. First things are transported that the Ministry of Defense wants to sell in advance, then it is ammunition and equipment that the defense can do without, but afterwards ‘it hurts’ for the military. With the armored howitzers, e.g. Surely the army would thereby increase its own striking power?

Ollongren himself will explain it to the soldiers with the head of the armed forces Onno Eichelsheim. In the end, there is understanding, says one person involved. “Those who train Ukrainian soldiers are also proud and actually think it’s great that we as the Netherlands can send them to the front with this equipment.”

Hoekstra is the first Dutch minister to travel to besieged Ukraine. In May, he will go to Kiev together with the German minister Annalena Baerbock. Prime Minister Rutte (in July) and Ollongren and Schreinemacher (in August) follow later. Travel to Ukraine remains strictly confidential; Officials must not tell the home front about that either.

Dazzled train

Only after dark does a blinded train appear on a platform somewhere in eastern Poland. The locomotive runs one or two trains – depending on the size of the delegation – in the middle of the night. Occasionally the special train stops for inexplicable reasons. In the compartment, they know: if the train stops, problems are imminent. The journey takes hours, sometimes 11.5 hours, sometimes 15 hours. One of them, with a sense of understatement: “These are not trips you take every day.”

When Rutte visits Zelenski on July 11, the Netherlands cannot deliver any more armored howitzers. The Dutch armed forces must keep a minimum number on their own territory. The Prime Minister can order new armored howitzers for him. That’s what the cabinet does, in a Polish factory.

The trips to Kiev make a deep impression on the ministers. “Because of the attitude of politicians, soldiers, but also ordinary Ukrainians: we are going to sing this song all the way through, we are going to win this and please continue to support us,” says a minister. It strengthens the government in the idea that has been in the minds of the most involved ministers since February 24: The Netherlands will continue to stand by Ukraine. Whatever it takes.

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