A makeshift memorial at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam. (Flickr/Roman Boed.)
With 193 Dutch citizens killed in the MH17 tragedy, the Netherlands is in shock. The country is mourning. Everybody seems to know someone who is directly affected by this terrible loss. The mourning is slowly but surely transforming into outrage that will push the Dutch Government into visible response and action.
We don't know exactly what happened. But is seems plausible that it was an 'unintended' incident in an armed conflict between separatists on the one side and national Ukrainian forces on the other. Unintended or not, factions and individuals are still accountable for what they have done. The questions 'Who did this?' and 'Who supplied the military support, technology, know-how and weaponry to execute such an attack?' are relevant to the victims and the population at large. Justice needs to have its way. The public is expecting and demanding as much.
But how on earth is justice going to have its way in this complex situation? There are a number of hindrances.
The first priority in this crisis is to repatriate the bodies and the belongings of the victims. While in a war the enemy may become dehumanised, we, the Dutch, are in no way part of this conflict. To us this is about people. We see images of insurgents posing for the world press with toys of children who died in the crash. That is disgusting. So people demand respect and dignity. We are humans. You cannot dehumanise us. We are not part of this conflict.
The humanitarian focus may, at the same time, hinder the search for justice. Justice requires that a suspect is identified. It requires a thorough investigation into the events, which is not going to be easy. Only one of the parties to the conflict (the Ukrainian Government) seems to have an interest in facilitating the inquiry. That in itself is telling. The other party (the separatists) is controlling the space in which the evidence is scattered. This means that the assistance of the separatists, which is required for the humanitarian priority, is conflicting with the search for justice. In this dilemma the approach of the Dutch Government is to focus on indirect diplomacy: trying to convince Russia to push the separatists to assist the international and Dutch efforts on both the humanitarian and investigation fronts. The Dutch Prime Minister has been on the phone with President Putin a number of times and with an increasing sense of urgency in his messaging. The public demands solutions. Quick. Putin needs to be aware of this.
This leaves us with a number of serious questions. One of them is: to what extent does Putin still have an impact on the ground? The second one is: if he does have impact on the ground, then why would he choose not to assist the international investigation?
The answers to these questions will, at least partly, depend on the pressure he will feel from the international community. Putin's influence on some of the factions within the amalgam of groups that oppose Kiev has reduced because he failed to directly and militarily intervene in the conflict. Some groups will no longer listen to the boss in Moscow. This seems the eternal fate of those who engage in proxy warfare. But even if Moscow can impact some of the groups in eastern Ukraine, political will is still required to assert pressure. Nothing seems to indicate that Putin is impressed or motivated by moral or legal considerations. Instead he calculates risks and potential gains. And that is where international political and economic pressure comes into the equation.
Putin wants to lead Russia into a new era of relevance; to return to the international platform after a humiliating post-Cold War period in which Russia was relegated to the position of loser. Loser of the Cold War. Loser in the eyes of the West. A relic of the past.
But what Putin is doing regarding the current conflict in Ukraine in general, and the aftermath of the MH17 tragedy in particular, is the very opposite of bringing Russia back to world status. That should be the message we send, and that is what will pressure the Kremlin. It might trigger activities from Moscow to regain lost influence among the players in eastern Ukraine; it may lead to pressure on the groups to cooperate. It is the only carrot that will work. The threat of sticks may need to come simultaneously, and the sticks may need to be sharpened and must be tailor-made. They need to hurt. Sharpened sticks made of targeted sanctions.
The sticks may hurt us as well, but things have changed. There is already much agony and pain in Dutch society following last week's events. We can take more. There are strong calls for action and justice. The Dutch are not calling for revenge, but for respect for human dignity and moral values. In my opinion, this can only be achieved if we offer the carrot and simultaneously show the sharpened stick, with only one objective: bring the actors of this crime to justice.