On a beautiful spring day this week, the dark sides of past and present intertwined. There was no escaping it.
On Thursday evening, the Netherlands paid tribute to its war victims. An important moment in the national calendar, almost eighty years after the end of WWII. In the morning, the Senate and House of Representatives received Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, commander in Europe’s current war. Russian President Vladimir Putin is now making victims in Ukraine that Ukraine will remember for decades to come.
Tensions around the country are rising again in these weeks. Both on the battlefield and beyond, preparations are being made for a much-discussed spring offensive. A partial evacuation was announced on Friday in the largely Russian-occupied Zaporizhia region, in an area where Ukrainian artillery fire is said to have intensified.
National Remembrance Day gave Zelensky’s visit extra meaning. Zelensky wanted to ensure that his Dutch allies had a clear view of the war in Ukraine again. After all, without the continued and far-reaching support of the West, Ukraine is lost. There is no better time to talk about the current Russian aggression than on the day when a country reflects on its own war suffering. Caroline van der Plas of the BoerBurgerBeweging did not see it that way. She thought the timing of the visit was inappropriate because “we remember OUR war victims. That should be the focus on May 4. Not Zelensky,” she tweeted.
By the time the Netherlands observed two minutes of silence, Zelensky was already on his way home, but World War II and Putin’s war touched more often on Thursday. War crimes trials were first tackled in the post-war Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals. Now, during the conflict, the basis for trial is already being laid with forensic investigation. According to Minister Hoekstra (Foreign Affairs, CDA), 85,000 cases of suspected war crimes have now been registered.
Zelensky wants Putin to be tried in The Hague soon. And for a new international tribunal to be set up. The International Criminal Court in The Hague can try war crimes, but not the ultimate war crime: the invasion of another country, the crime of aggression.
In a diplomatic offensive that has been going on for months, Zelensky is touring allies with a wish list. Washington, Paris, Brussels, Helsinki, The Hague. He keeps the pressure on the kettle. He calls for justice and for rapid accession to NATO. He asks for weapons and ammunition.
At the front, so many shells go through that the EU put on the table a billion-dollar plan to quickly deliver ammunition. EU member states are transferring ammunition from their own stocks to Ukraine. To supplement this, the European Commission wants to use subsidies to encourage ammunition manufacturers to increase production and to adopt a ‘war economy’ mode. “They are not there yet,” said European Commissioner Thierry Breton last week after a tour of factories. The munitions industry is a legacy of the Cold War, but it fell into disarray as the demand for shells plummeted. Now the factories are getting a boost again.
In The Hague, Zelensky also asked for fighter planes again. The Netherlands has dozens of F-16s that are no longer needed because the Air Force is switching to the new F-35. Prime Minister Rutte left room for hope: he said he needed time to consult with allies.
In any case, the planes will not arrive in time for the spring offensive on which so much depends. With new Western equipment, Ukraine now has the opportunity to try to recapture as much territory as possible. If that is a success, Kyiv will soon have a strong position at the negotiating table. If it turns out to be a flop, the question arises whether the Western alliance that supports Ukraine will survive. In the event of a failure, the pressure on Kyiv may increase to make concessions to Russia. Excellent relations with Western capitals are therefore essential for Zelensky.
In the meantime, the question is also how strong Putin is. On the battlefield, Russia has been unable to make any substantial territorial gains for months. Mysterious explosions have been taking place almost daily on Russian territory this week. For example, a fire broke out at an oil refinery in southwest Russia on Friday and oil tanks caught fire in Crimea last weekend.
It also became clear how difficult incidents in this war are to interpret – certainly on the Russian side. For example, in the months-long battle for Bachmut, Putin has to rely on Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary army. On Friday, he threatened to withdraw from Bachmut because he would not receive enough ammunition from the defense ministry in Moscow. He reinforced his plea by posting images on social media of him walking among the remains of fallen fighters. Prigozhin says he wants to withdraw on May 10 – the day after the annual celebration of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany.
That Victory Day, Tuesday, will take place this year in a tense atmosphere. In a number of cities, the celebration has been canceled for safety reasons. In Moscow, the military parade on Red Square continues, even though the Kremlin was hit by two drones on the night from Tuesday to Wednesday, causing a small fire.
The origin of those drones is still unclear. One theory has it that Russia itself sent them to shift the blame onto Ukraine and thus have a justification for escalation. However, many analysts assume that Ukraine has managed to penetrate one of the most secure buildings in Russia – an embarrassment to Putin.
Putin likes to link his war to WWII. In his lecture, both then and now, the future of Russia is at stake. He forgets to add that Russia is now the aggressor. In Putin’s view, however, the West started the war, and Russia must now liberate Ukraine from a neo-Nazi regime.
In The Hague, Zelensky said that his country is doing everything it can to make the counteroffensive a success. But victory will never be complete, he said. Even if you recapture every territory, you will lose people. “And that is a great tragedy for a society.”
In the Trenches page 6-7
A version of this article also appeared in the May 6, 2023 issue of the newspaper.