Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra said for years that, when he was working for oil company Shell in 2006, he attended a meeting in Russia with President Vladimir Putin. Putin, Zijlstra explained on several occasions, said he aimed to restore “Greater Russia” in its full glory. Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic states were all part of this “Greater Russia.”
On Monday, we found out that Zijlstra wasn’t in any meetings with Putin back in 2006.
He admitted this to Dutch daily the Volkskrant after having repeated the story for years, including at his political party’s congress back in 2016.
According to Zijlstra, however, the story was basically true; Putin did say these things, it’s just that he didn’t personally hear Putin say theme. He got the story from a close friend of his who did attend the meeting and later told him about it.
That’s when another minor problem arose: the source — Shell’s Jeroen van der Veer — says that Zijlstra “misinterpreted” Putin’s words. Yes, Van der Veer says, Putin talked about “Greater Russia,” but this was nothing more than an explanation of Russia’s history — not an announcement of future military conquests, which is what Zijlstra has said.
According to Zijlstra, Putin had said that he wanted to retake the Balkans, Belarus, and Ukraine. “Kazakhstan would be nice to have.” That sounds frightening. But, says Van der Veer, “the term ‘nice to have’ isn’t mine.” In other words, Zijlstra fabricated that supposed “quote.” “An aggressive interpretation” of Putin’s statements, Van der Veer says, “isn’t mine nor (related to) my choice of words.”
Amazingly, although Dutch cabinet members were forced to resign for much less in the past, Zijlstra initially refused to step down. What’s worse, he continued to be supported by Prime Minister Rutte (who, not surprisingly, belongs to the same party, the liberal VVD), who defended him by arguing that the story is “basically true” because, well, Putin does actually have an imperialist agenda. So there.
Thankfully, however, the VVD’s coalition partners — Christian Democrats, Liberal Democrats, and Christian Unionists — were less apologetic, as were the opposition parties. When he came to Parliament in order to explain himself to its members on Tuesday, Zijlstra explained that he would resign after all. He did so shortly after (to King Willem-Alexander).