Author: Koen Claessen


The most powerful military alliance on the planet has a vacancy to fill. Current Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg will leave his post in October this year after a ten year tenure in Brussels. With support from 28 of 32 NATO allies, including key partners like the US, UK, France, and Germany, outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte emerges as the clear frontrunner for the position. Despite initial reservations from Eastern European allies and active opposition from Hungary, anticipated US pressure is set to ensure Rutte’s unanimous appointment as NATO’s top civil servant before summer. If this is the case, Rutte will assume office amidst resurging Russian threats. In this light, it is worth investigating Rutte’s handling of the Kremlin during his tenure as Prime Minister of the Netherlands. What events have shaped Rutte’s stance on Russia pre-2022?  How can we interpret his approach to Russia before its full-scale invasion of Ukraine? And crucially, what can we anticipate from Rutte as NATO’s Secretary General when it comes to dealing with the Kremlin? Examining Rutte’s previous interactions with the Kremlin can offer answers to these questions, and give significant insights into the predispositions and strategies he brings to the Euro-Atlantic table.

Mark who?

Mark Rutte has been the prime minister of the Netherlands since 2010, following the victory of his liberal center-right VVD party (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) in that year’s parliamentary elections. His 14 year long tenure places him as the second longest-serving EU leader after Hungary’s Victor Orban, thereby solidifying his status as one of the most prominent and recognizable figures in European politics. Domestically, Rutte is primarily known for his pragmatism and aversion to rigid ideology. He famously likened ideological political vision to “an elephant impeding your sight.” This pragmatic approach to governance is evident in the diverse coalitions he has led, ranging from collaborations with the populist right to alliances with the Social Democrats. Despite the premature resignations of three out of his four cabinets and Rutte’s association with various political and administrative debacles, his VVD party persisted in winning elections, and Rutte himself maintained unparalleled popularity within both his party and its electorate.

As is the case domestically, pragmatism has also emerged as one of Rutte’s trademarks within the European Union. In early 2016, seeking to address the challenge of Middle Eastern migration into Europe, Rutte, alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, brokered a deal with Turkey. A similar scenario unfolded in 2023, when Rutte together with Giorgia Meloni and Ursula von der Leyen brokered a migration deal with Tunisia. While subject to considerable controversy due to allegedly violating international laws on refugee rights, these deals marked Rutte as a pragmatic negotiator on the European stage. This international pragmatism can also be seen in Rutte’s approach towards EU enlargement. Cautious about expansion and emphasizing compliance with the Copenhagen Criteria as a prerequisite for candidacy, Rutte still ended up supporting Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova’s EU candidate status to geopolitical considerations after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This shift underscores a broader evolution in Rutte’s approach towards the EU, transitioning from a pragmatic view centered on Dutch interests to a geopolitical understanding of the EU’s role on the global stage post-invasion. It is due to this shift that Rutte has made a name for himself as a prime supporter of Ukraine, with the Netherlands being amongst the first states to deliver F16 fighter jets to Ukraine.

This blend of pragmatism and geopolitical insight has positioned Rutte as the leading contender for NATO’s top post. Many view his ability to broker deals and work with whomever he has to work with as precisely what the alliance needs, should Donald Trump enter the Oval Office in January 2025. Notably, it is rumored that especially the United States favor Rutte’s pragmatism over the more rigid anti-Russian stances of other leaders, suggesting that his approach could prove advantageous in case of future negotiations between Ukraine and Russia.

However, Eastern European and Baltic NATO allies advocate for a candidate from the alliance’s newer members, citing their early recognition of the Russian threat and relatively larger military investment compared to their Western counterparts. They additionally criticize Rutte for failing to meet NATO’s 2 percent defense spending target throughout his tenure as Dutch Prime Minister. Despite most Eastern European and Baltic states signaling they will not block Rutte from getting the job, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis remains their preferred candidate. While these arguments certainly hold merit, it would be false to assert that Rutte’s pre-invasion history with Moscow has been unproblematic. In fact, Russian hostility has significantly shaped Rutte’s tenure.

Rutte and Russia

The first significant confrontations with Moscow during Rutte’s tenure arose in 2013. Protests against Russian legislation targeting LGBTQ+ groups and individuals disrupted the Dutch-Russian ‘Friendship Year,’ commemorating 400 years of diplomatic relations. The rift deepened later that year, when Russia declined further investigation into the death of a Dutch cameraman during its 2008 war in Georgia, and arrested Greenpeace activists which included Dutch nationals. Tensions reached a zenith in October, when a senior Dutch diplomat was attacked and tied up in his Moscow apartment, with the with the perpetrators inscribing ‘LGBT’ on his mirror. This incident occurred shortly after the apprehension of a Russian diplomat in The Hague on charges of misconduct, prompting a public apology from the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs. While the Kremlin was quick to condemn the assault, theories linking the assailants to Moscow soon gained traction.

In the wake of all of these incidents, Rutte remained notably stoic and diplomatic. Stating the gravity of the attack on the Dutch diplomat, Rutte refused to comment on whether relations with Russia had deteriorated. Likewise, his cabinet refused to end the Friendship Year, with Rutte stating that after such incidents, “we have to stay calm and solve these incidents one by one, so we can all end this friendship year in a celebratory manner.” In line with this, Rutte allowed the Dutch King to make an official state visit to Russia in November 2013, and would go on to still send a delegation to Sochi for the Winter Olympics of 2014. All the while, Rutte did stress the importance of justice, for example threatening to start a case at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea if Russia would not release the Greenpeace activists. Rutte’s approach to these crises can thus be characterized as highly diplomatic, patient, and institutionalist, trying the best he could not to deteriorate relations with the Kremlin despite significant incidents. This approach of course has to be seen against the fact that in 2013, The Netherlands were still the largest importers of Russian hydrocarbons, making Rutte’s approach one necessitated by pragmatism; as Rutte said himself “If we only trade with countries that match our standards of freedom and democracy, you would be left with very few contacts.”

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Rutte took a condemnatory yet constructive stance towards Russia. In a first response, Rutte stressed standing for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, denouncing the annexation as a grave violation of international law. Simultaneously, he advocated for de-escalation and constructive dialogue between Russia and Ukraine, without calling combatants in Crimea Russian troops. Despite supporting collective EU sanctions against Russia, Rutte was against specific Dutch sanctions given the gravity of economic relations between the Netherlands and Russia. In this context, he even allowed a Dutch trade mission, which included the Dutch Minister for Economic Affairs, to visit Moscow in May 2014. Rutte’s response to the annexation thus shows his tendency to navigating the geopolitical landscape with a blend of principled diplomacy and pragmatic, constructive realism.

However, the event that left the most significant mark on Russo-Dutch relations, as well as on Rutte himself, was the downing of flight MH17 in July 2014. On the 17th of July 2014, commercial airliner MH17, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down by a military BUK missile over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 passengers, 196 of which were Dutch nationals. The attack deeply scarred Dutch society and politics. Given the presence of Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine at the time, speculations about the plane being shot down by these groups quickly emerged. Additionally, independent investigation into the tragedy and retrieving bodies and evidence were hindered by the fact that the site of the plane’s crash was located in separatist-controlled territory.

Rutte’s approach towards Russia in the aftermath of the attack was marked by prudence, de-escalation, and cooperation, while being personally committed to seeking justice. His first priorities after the attack were retrieving the bodies of the victims and launching a thorough investigation, seeking to hold those responsible for the attack accountable. Rutte emphasized the need for broad international support for this investigation and refrained from directly accusing Russia, stressing the importance of first establishing the facts through prudent investigation. In a phone call with Putin the day after the attack Rutte urged him to cooperate in the investigations, asking Putin to wield his influence over the separatists to grant the investigators access to the site of the crash and retrieve the bodies. Putin allegedly assured him of Russia’s cooperation – although this would later prove to be an empty promise. Rutte additionally stressed that if research would show that the crash was caused by an attack, he would not rest before justice had been served and the one’s responsible would be prosecuted. However, when it proved impossible for a large part of the investigation-team to access the site of the crash, Rutte’s cabinet refused to send an armed military mission to secure the location due to concerns about this leading to Dutch involvement in the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Rutte’s first response was thus primarily fossed on de-escalation, international cooperation, and prudent investigation, all while emphasizing principles of justice and accountability.

Following MH17, Rutte persistently pressed Putin on accountability, employing a prudently legalistic approach grounded in international law. He reportedly cornered Putin at an international summit in October 2014, underscoring Russia’s obligation to cooperate in the investigation and repatriation of victims. More notably, in May 2018 the Dutch and Australian governments declared holding Russia responsible for downing the flight. This declaration stemmed from findings by the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), attributing the BUK missile responsible for the tragedy to the 53rd brigade of the Russian army. Additionally, in June 2019 the Dutch Public Prosecution Service prosecuted four individuals, three of whom are Russian nationals, suspected of downing the plane. Rutte consistently expressedconfidence in the JIT’s work and the legal processes, emphasizing the importance of holding perpetrators legally accountable despite the time and patience required by complicated international lawsuits. Simultaneously, Rutte’s administrations continued to pursue a policy towards Russia focused on “pressure and selective cooperation,” acknowledging its threat to European stability and (cyber)security while recognizing the necessity of dialogue given the extensive economic and cultural ties between Russia and the Netherlands. Despite MH17 and multiple other incidents, Rutte thus continued his pragmatic approach towards Russia, be it less accommodating than before 2014.

Conclusion: Expectations of Rutte as NATO’s Secretary General

Analysis of Rutte’s pre-invasion experiences with the Kremlin show how he has consistently taken a de-escalatory and slightly pragmatic approach, always leaving room for dialogue and selective cooperation. Even when it turned out Moscow shared responsibility for the death of 196 Dutch citizens Rutte showed not to be a revanchist, but rather a prudent legalist and institutionalist, seeking justice through diplomacy and international law. It is exactly for these reasons that the majority of NATO allies support Rutte’s bid for its top position; they see him as a Secretary General capable of resisting provocations and committed to upholding the liberal international order. In a time in which this order is under unprecedented pressure, Mark Rutte is expected to be the congenial, pragmatic institutionalist who can keep NATO together. Moreover, while being a staunch supporter of Ukraine, Rutte has shown himself able to set aside grievances once the dust has settled. This means that when, if ever, Russia and Ukraine join Rutte at the negotiating table, Rutte is trusted to be a pragmatic negotiator whose primary focus will be justice for Ukraine rather than retribution against Russia. Yet it is at the same time this expectation that makes him an unpopular candidate amongst Eastern European and Baltic allies, who fear that such half-hearted approach will fail to decapitate Russia’s imperial ambitions once and for all.

Above all, Rutte can be expected to continue current Secretary General Stoltenberg’s approach. Indeed, these two leaders exhibit striking similarities: both renowned for their steadfast, predictable, and de-escalatory approaches on the international stage; and both celebrated as adept negotiators and consensus builders with a history of engaging with the Kremlin. Like Rutte, Stoltenberg assumed office in Brussels amid concerns of him being overly accommodating toward Russia. Yet, the overarching lesson from Stoltenberg’s decade-long leadership in Brussels is that ultimately, Russia’s actions dictate the course of relations between NATO and Moscow. Rutte’s leadership will in the end thus be largely defined by Russia’s future actions.

However, it is important to recognize that NATO is not the Kremlin: decisions are not made by one person. Ultimately, all decisions are made collectively by NATO’s member states, with the Secretary General tasked with implementing agreed-upon policies. Therefore, Rutte’s personal preferences should not be considered to carry excessive weight. Nevertheless, as the alliance’s prime spokesperson and the chair of all major committees, understanding Rutte’s attitudes and approaches towards Russia offers valuable insight into NATO’s future under a new Secretary General.