His eyes were watery and his raspy bass voice was even huskier than usual. Volodymyr Zelensky – dressed in olive green as always – seemed completely exhausted during his surprise visit to the Netherlands. In difficult English he struggled through his speech to diplomats and guests at the World Forum in The Hague. But during the press conference in the Catshuis with Prime Minister Rutte (VVD) and Belgian Prime Minister De Croo, the Ukrainian president and former comedian once again showed his feeling for the audience, when a reporter from the NOS wanted to know whether Zelensky Rutte still had his ‘ good friend’ if the Netherlands remains hesitant about NATO membership for Ukraine. “Dear friends,” said Zelensky teasingly, looking at the journalists emphatically. Then he turned to Rutte and De Croo: “My good friends.”
When Zelensky crossed the Polish border on Tuesday, the Dutch government plane was waiting in Rzeszów to fly him to Helsinki for summit talks with the Nordic and Baltic countries. Early Wednesday morning, the PH-GOV transported Zelensky to Schiphol, after which the president drove on to The Hague, where the assembled States General awaited him in the temporary building of the Senate.
PVV leader Geert Wilders and Caroline van der Plas (BBB) were absent. May 4 is the day when “OUR war victims” should be remembered, Van der Plas tweeted: “Not Zelensky.” She received many angry reactions. Zelensky stayed away from the riot in The Hague and emphasized the broad support he had felt in the Dutch parliament.
Zelensky’s visit is a reward for the pro-active attitude of the Netherlands after the Russian invasion. Since the invasion, the government has supplied 1.2 billion euros worth of weapons and equipment: from the limited stocks of the Ministry of Defense or by purchasing military equipment, such as tanks, together with other countries.
The Netherlands is also providing important support in prosecuting Russian war crimes and efforts to bring Russian President Putin before a tribunal for the international crime of ‘aggression’ against another country. The Hague has already announced that the Hofstad would like to house such an ‘aggression tribunal’.
Zelensky’s speech at the World Forum was a plea for the establishment of a separate Ukraine tribunal to prosecute Russian aggression against Ukraine. In such a court, the political and military leadership of Russia and Belarus can be prosecuted, something that is beyond the legal possibilities of the International Criminal Court. Zelensky: “I am grateful for the International Criminal Court, but there is only one institution that can enforce accountability for the crime of aggression: a tribunal.”
Zelensky referred to the Nuremberg Trial and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It was striking that he spoke out against a hybrid tribunal mixing Ukrainian and international law. The United States and Germany are in favor, but Zelensky wants a fully international court. He fears legal wrangling in the run-up to a Ukraine tribunal: “We should not refer to the shortcomings of international law, but take strong decisions to rectify those shortcomings.”
In his speech, Zelensky asked for a minute’s silence to remember the victims of the war in Ukraine, including those killed on flight MH17. “Tonight at eight o’clock, also remember the men, women, adults, children, who would still be alive if there was no war now.”
Zelensky’s visit was not all about symbolism. Next year, the Netherlands will say goodbye to the F-16, and Kyiv has set its sights on the 48 fighters that will be disposed of. Washington is uncooperative, but Prime Minister Rutte hinted that behind the scenes the Netherlands is pushing hard for the delivery of Western warplanes. “We are working hard to bring this debate to an end.” The Prime Minister made a comparison with Armored howitzers and Leopard tanks that were delivered to Ukraine after some discussion. The transfer of the F-16s is a matter of time, Rutte seemed to say.
There were also favorable omens for an even more important issue: Ukraine’s possible NATO membership. At the press conference in the Catshuis, Zelensky made it clear that his country is well aware that joining the North Atlantic alliance is not possible as long as there is fighting.
What his country wants, the Ukrainian president said, is a commitment that Ukraine can join once the war is over.
In July, NATO meets in Vilnius: Zelensky is also invited. If it is up to Rutte, something concrete will be held out during the summit in Lithuania. “We support Ukraine’s NATO ambitions,” the prime minister said. In the coming weeks, according to Rutte, the NATO member states will negotiate what Kyiv can offer. The outcome of this still seems uncertain: while the eastern flank of the alliance is lobbying for the immediate incorporation of Ukraine, major countries such as Germany and France – and with them the Netherlands – are warning against hasty decisions.
After a visit to King Willem-Alexander at the Ten Bosch house, Zelensky drove on to a barracks at the former Soesterberg airbase, where Rutte and Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren (D66) showed examples of Dutch military equipment supplied to Ukraine.
When Zelensky arrives on the warm square after a long wait, accompanied by Prime Minister Rutte and Minister Ollongren (Defense), he thanks the Netherlands for its military support. Ollongren assures him that the support is permanent: “We will continue to make substantial contributions to strengthening Ukraine’s military strength. Now and in the future. For as long as it takes.”
The Netherlands is responsible for the rehabilitation of injured Ukrainian soldiers. Seven Ukrainian men and their carers are present. They walk with crutches, some have two leg prostheses. Zelensky speaks to them and hands out tokens in boxes, as presents. Also present are Ukrainian students, in uniform, who act as translators during training sessions.
Zelensky speaks the longest with some members of the forensic investigation team that is looking for evidence of war crimes in Ukraine. Dozens of employees of the Ministry of Defense, in uniform and civilian clothing, are standing next to the equipment. They take care of maintenance, or prepare the weapons and vehicles for transport.
On the way to the car – one of twelve in the column – Zelensky answers two press questions. When someone asks how Rutte compares to other world leaders, Rutte laughs with his guest: “Sorry, we really have to leave now.”
It may be imagination, but the exhausted-looking Zelensky seems relieved that the Dutch program is over. As he gets in he shouts „Bye bye, all the best. Be strong!” Rutte gets into another car, he has to go to Dam Square. Ollongren answers a few more press questions. She repeats the cabinet mantra once more when it comes to the possible delivery of F-16 fighter jets: “There are no taboos.”
At the beginning of the evening, the Dutch government seat Zelensky flew back to Rzeszów. An opportunity for the Ukrainian president to reflect on the forthcoming spring offensive. Leaked documents from the Pentagon show that Ukraine and the West have formed 12 combat-ready brigades in recent months. It is a force of some thirty to fifty thousand men, equipped with a motley collection of Western weapon systems, each of which is superior to what the Russians can bring to the field.
With this mechanized field army, Ukraine should be able to drive the Russians out of the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhia, it is expected, and possibly also be able to push through to Crimea and eastwards to Donetsk, the capital of the Donbas.
Zelensky seems to be weighed down by all expectations. “We will do our best,” said the Ukrainian president in the Catshuis. “I think we will get results, but I don’t want to talk about successes, because a lot of our people will certainly die.” A dark shadow fell across Zelensky’s tired face. “Even if you win, you actually lose.”
A version of this article also appeared in the May 5, 2023 newspaper.
#Zelensky #grateful #tired