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Dutch defense minister: You don't start negotiations with gun pointed at your head

by Elsa Court March 21, 2024 9:38 PM 10 min read
Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren poses for a portrait before an interview for The Kyiv Independent on March 20, 2024, in Kyiv. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)
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Europe needs to make great strides in increasing the capacity of its defense industry, and can only do this by working together within the EU and with Ukraine, Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren told the Kyiv Independent on March 20.

The ammunition initiative, launched by Czechia in February amid increasingly dire reports concerning Ukraine's munitions shortages on the front and involving the Netherlands, is an example of such cooperation. It's not the first time the Dutch have joined forces with other European countries to provide support to Ukraine.

As a leading member of the fighter jet coalition, and now a member of the Latvian-led drone coalition for Ukraine, the Netherlands is utilizing its edge in technology to help Ukraine.

A month on from an interview at the Munich Security Conference, the Kyiv Independent sat down with Ollongren in Kyiv to discuss the Netherlands' contributions to Ukraine's fight in the air, on the ground, and at an EU level.

The Kyiv Independent: One of the reasons why we can have this interview in Kyiv is because of the air defense systems around the city, but there are reports that with the aid from the U.S. drying up, Ukraine could be unable to shoot down most Russian missiles within weeks. What contribution is the Netherlands making to air defense in Ukraine?

Kajsa Ollongren: Air defense is crucial. I know because this is my fourth time in Kyiv and the reason that you can feel safe in Kyiv is because of the air defense.

We also know that Ukraine is a big country with many big cities, so it's difficult to have enough air defense, but we know it's vital for Ukraine. It's always very high on our list.

We were also part of the countries that stepped forward to provide Patriots and other types of air defense, so we know how important it is, and we, and all other countries, are aware of that. It's also a question of adapting the production levels. That is what we will keep pushing for.

The Kyiv Independent: One year ago today, the EU promised Ukraine one million artillery shells. As we know, they were not delivered within the year that was aimed for. When do you expect the EU to reach the one million mark, and what is the main bottleneck preventing this from happening?

Kajsa Ollongren: We are working now on what we call the Czech initiative. This is a large number of shells, and we have the funding now. The Netherlands is contributing 250 million euros ($270 million).

We're working very hard with the Czechs to ensure the ammunition is shipped as soon as possible to arrive in Ukraine and at the front line. We want the soldiers on the front to feel that there is a steady flow of ammunition.

After that, we will have to ensure that we are on the right level of production. The level of production in the EU at the end of the year will be much, much higher than it was before Feb. 24, 2022.

That is what we need, and we need it long-term. We need it long-term, we need it for Ukraine. We know also that Ukraine itself has production facilities that will be able to increase. We will have to increase and we will have to keep it on this high level.

The Kyiv Independent: With the current level and speed of weapons and military aid coming to Ukraine, do you think it’s possible for Ukraine to win the war?

Kajsa Ollongren: We are confident that Ukraine can win the war. We support Ukraine in every possible way because we are very impressed by your achievements so far. We must not forget that the Russian Federation and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin have not achieved a single goal they set themselves at the beginning and they have achieved a lot of the opposites.

They have achieved the enlargement of NATO. They achieved that Ukraine is also at the table with NATO and has prospects for EU membership. There is unity among European countries in the support for Ukraine. So Ukraine has many friends, which is the opposite of what the Russian Federation wanted.

So, yes, we are confident. It may take time, but we will be there and we will continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes.

Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren poses for a portrait before an interview for the Kyiv Independent on March 20, 2024, in Kyiv. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)

The Kyiv Independent: There were some reports last year that F-16 pilots, in an optimistic scenario, could be ready by the end of May-beginning of June this year. Do you have any updates on the timeline, on how the training is going, and when we can expect F-16s in Ukrainian airspace?

Kajsa Ollongren: I think that we are on track. This is not something that you can do overnight. It is a complex capability, but it's an important capability and so we have to do everything right.

And so that means you need trained pilots and technicians to have the infrastructure in place. We are also working on preparing the platforms and the aircraft itself to make sure they have the right ammunition and are ready for use.

It's going to start phasing in this summer. Then, we will be working toward scaling up the number of planes, and also the number of people who can use the planes.

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The Kyiv Independent: The Netherlands has also joined the drone coalition for Ukraine, and drones have become a key element on the battlefield. Has the Dutch military learned anything from the use of drones in Ukraine, and is the front line in Ukraine seen as a testing ground for these new military technologies in Western Europe?

Kajsa Ollongren: We're eager to learn from your experiences with every capability you use, but especially the new techniques, which are drones and unmanned systems. We do not see it as a testing line because it's very serious business. People are dying while fighting at the front.

But what is important also for Ukraine is that the techniques used there, you have to know which ones are successful and which ones are not successful, and also, what the enemy is doing, because they're also developing their techniques.

That will enable us to adapt to that reality, to adapt our techniques, and to use new techniques that are better than what the opposite side uses. Therefore, we need to have this feedback loop.

I always say it's a two-way street. It's not just us sending things to Ukraine, we also get knowledge back, and experience back, and we use that to improve. That is also why our industries have to work together to get the very best for the soldiers who are fighting

The Kyiv Independent: The European Commission recently presented the first European Defense Industrial Strategy. You are a supporter of this, and you've said that the EU needs to be "fit to fight." I wonder what you think the Dutch contribution could be to the European defense industry. Are there any particular parts of the Dutch economy that could contribute to this plan?

Kajsa Ollongren: I think so. We have to work together and do that within the European Union, and we have to invite Ukraine also to be part of that. That is exactly what the Commission is now proposing. Together we are stronger.

In the Netherlands, we have a very strong maritime sector and have a very strong high-tech sector. This is what we should develop and contribute to the industries that are also located in other countries, and then, you create European strengths.

If everybody is doing the same in their own country, then you're not producing at scale, and you're not getting stronger. I think also, as I said at the maintenance facility, we are exporting our own fragmentation.

Ukraine has to fight with all kinds of infantry, fighting vehicles, tanks, etc. Also there, we have to have interoperability standardization or even interchangeability by using the same product to have user groups of countries that use the same. If you use the same, you can also fight together.

Therefore, we also have to learn from the Ukrainian experience, but the European Commission is taking a step in the right direction.

Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren poses for a portrait before an interview for The Kyiv Independent on March 20, 2024, in Kyiv. (Oleh Tymoshenko / The Kyiv Independent)

The Kyiv Independent: Why do you think it's important that a new role be created for an EU defense commissioner? And what should be the number one priority if this position is created?

Kajsa Ollongren: I think it's very important because what the war in Ukraine has taught us is that we have to be ready in Europe to take care of our own security, to be able to defend ourselves. Also, inside of NATO.

So, supporting Ukraine and, at the same time, building up our defense industries and our armed forces is the only way to be efficient in your deterrence if we are actually "fit to fight."

Take the Netherlands, we are a medium-sized country with 17 million people. That's quite substantial but look at our geography. We are close to the sea, and we have a big German neighbor. So we have to work together with industries and other armed forces, and we have to have joint forces to be strong.

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The Kyiv Independent: Some of the Netherlands' military troops are integrated with Germans. What are your thoughts on further integration between European armies or the creation of a European army?

Kajsa Ollongren: I'm very practical. So, we have NATO for our collective defense. We also have other tasks that we have to perform. If you work together, you can be stronger. For instance, our army is integrated with the German army.

That means that our brigades are training on division levels, which makes us stronger, and it makes Germany stronger. If the Netherlands and Germany are stronger, then NATO is also stronger. This makes sense, and I hope other neighboring countries are looking at our example because it will make all of NATO stronger.

The Kyiv Independent: Speaking of NATO - Donald Trump recently said that as long as European countries pay their share in terms of defense spending, the U.S. won't leave NATO. Do you think the U.S. is a reliable partner as part of the alliance, particularly given that the Netherlands is one of the countries that did not reach the 2% of the defense spending for many years?

Kajsa Ollongren: The people that have this debate forget one thing - for a long time, the 2% was not a floor. It was a target. It was a target to be reached this year - 2024. And we reached that target because this government decided that in 2024 and 2025, we would spend 2% on defense.

Last year in Vilnius, we agreed with all NATO countries that 2% is the floor - it’s a minimum. As a minister of defense, I say that is very important, that it is the minimum, it's not enough. We have to do more than that, and we're working on that.

NATO is more than just looking at the funding. NATO is about trust. It’s about Article Five. It's about agreeing that this is what we do as an alliance and as allies, and if that trust is in doubt, then NATO becomes weaker.

I will resist the simplicity of just translating it into "is everybody under or just over 2%"? It is about whether you are ready to step in if Article Five is triggered. It's only been triggered once by the U.S. It is our duty now to ensure that our deterrence is in order and that Article Five is not triggered. I think that is what NATO is all about.

The Kyiv Independent: About $60 billion in funding patterns for Ukraine remains stuck in the U.S. Congress. Does this have a knock-on effect on how people perceive peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, and does this push Ukraine into an unfavorable position?

Kajsa Ollongren: We've always said it's up to Ukraine to decide when you want to start negotiations. I completely understand that you don't start negotiations when you have a gun pointed at your head.

You want to be in a strong position. That is why we will continue to support Ukraine, to resist this Russian aggression, to fight against this illegal annexation of part of your country. You're completely within your rights, and you have our full support.

You can see that European countries are doing a lot. The U.S. is an important partner and a very big country. So, regarding what they can contribute, it is difficult for us to compensate for that.

I hope that there will be a solution. I think many people in the U.S. agree with that. Many members of Congress who are bipartisan agree that this has to be done. But we all know that it is still stuck because of political reasons that have nothing to do with the war in Ukraine.

Note from the author:

Hi, this is Elsa Court, the author of this article. With every day that passes, Ukrainians face more Russian onslaughts with less ammunition and equipment to defend themselves. Assistance from around the world is key to helping Ukraine and its people survive. If you would like to support our reporting at the crucial point in the war, consider becoming a member of the Kyiv Independent community.

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