Belgian newspaper, Het Nieuwsblad
Constantijn van Vloten and Kris Beckers, honorary consuls for Russia and Ukraine respectively, both live in Haspengouw. They are crossing diplomatic swords over the tense situation in Eastern Europe. A pinch of geopolitics from Groot-Gelmen and Hoepertingen.
The tension between Russia and Ukraine also shimmers in Haspengouw (Limburg)
Baron Constantijn van Vloten, Honorary Consul General of Russia in the Netherlands with the Russian flag and the portrait of President Putin.
“Russia will never attack Ukraine”
Baron Constantijn van Vloten (70) receives us by the crackling fire in a salon of Château de la Motte near Sint-Truiden. The catering entrepreneur from Utrecht is Honorary Consul General of the Russian Federation in the Netherlands. He has been living in his castle in Groot-Gelmen for thirty years, in an interior with Dutch and Russian details. A padded sofa swallows us up, on the wall a photo of Vladimir Putin looks over the shoulder of his honorary consul.
“Russia will never attack Ukraine,” Van Vloten says. “Russia only has an army to defend itself. But NATO has increasingly moved east, against previous promises.”
Indeed, US and German diplomats are said to have suggested in 1990 that NATO would expand “not an inch” after German unification. That was diplomatic lubricant, informally and verbally, nothing was ever put on paper. “An oral agreement also applies,” Van Vloten counters.
Meanwhile, the Russian army is camping in Crimea, a contested peninsula. “In Crimea, the main port for Russia is located on the Black Sea. A vote has been organized and the population has voted 96.6 percent to join Russia," the honorary consul said.
But by no means the entire population of Ukraine has been able to vote on this. The country also sits with two renegade provinces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The Donetsk People's Republic and the Luhansk People's Republic are two (unrecognized) separatist pro-Russian states there. That is what the current conflict is about, according to Van Vloten: “It was agreed that the Ukrainian government would talk to those two provinces, but they are not doing that. Their plan was to attack those provinces so that NATO would intervene, that's what Ukraine had hoped. Now Russia has said, "Enough! We don't want Russian people to be attacked in the Donbas.” Troops are standing at the border to protect them. But the intention is not to invade Ukraine. What are the Russians supposed to do with that? It will only cause problems.”
“Extended hysteria”, Van Vloten calls the messages from Ukraine. “That suits Boris Johnson well now. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is on the shovel, he can use a diversion abroad.”
The Dutchman is "one hundred percent" reassured that there will be no military conflict. “The head of the Ukrainian security service even says so. The balance of power has also changed. Russia is militarily invincible, especially now that it has signed a pact with China. Putin says: "If we are attacked with nuclear weapons, we also press the button. Then we go to heaven, and the others die.'”, jokes Van Vloten. And he digs up a meme on his cell phone of a chihuahua (NATO) who is yelling at staffords (Russia and China).
Van Vloten knows Russian President Putin personally. "A very patriotic man, great guy, no squabbles in it," it sounds. “But he just wants to keep it tidy. The great advantage that he may be president for so long is stability. He brings prosperity. Everyone is happy with him.” Except for the opposition, who would prefer to see the Kremlin eliminated? “Moscow doesn't like troublemakers. But those poison stories and stuff? Bland!” the honorary consul asserts himself. “In no country is everyone one hundred percent satisfied. People are also arguing here, right?”
If it does come to a conflict and embargoes, will Moscow turn off the gas tap to Europe? “Of course not”, laughs Van Vloten. “You don't give up your wages, do you? Russians are reliable business partners, is my many years of experience.”
Honorary Consul Kris Beckers at the Belgian, Ukrainian and European flag.
“Russian aggression against Ukraine has been going on for eight years”
In Hoepertingen, three and a half kilometers from the castle gate of the Honorary Consul General of Russia, stands the heavy front door of the beautifully restored fifteenth-century building that houses the Honorary Consulate of Ukraine. Honorary Consul Kris Beckers (43) is active in fruit cultivation, the sale of agricultural machinery and is working on a Hydroelectric power project in Ukraine, among other things. “I know Constantijn van Vloten well, but we haven't spoken for a while. He will have a different story," Beckers begins.
“I travel to Ukraine on regularly base. In December I was there with professor Jan De Maere who gave lectures in Kyiv and Odessa. I'm going back next week. I have daily contact with Ukrainians and their diplomats. The country has been at war since 2014. Life goes on as normal but people wait and see what fate will bring them. Nobody knows what the big geopolitical forces are up to," said the honorary consul.
“Putin will not succumb to sanctions that do not seriously disrupt his economy”
“When you talk to Ukrainians, you notice how committed they are to the European choice of their country and their freedom. But Russia occupies Crimea and part of Ukrainian territory in the east of the country. This Russian military aggression against Ukraine has been going on for 8 years," emphasizes the honorary consul.
Will the powder keg explode soon? “No one can look inside President Putin's head. It does not want Ukraine to continue as a successful, democratic, EU-oriented state. He wants to return to the delineation of the spheres of influence and does not tolerate freedom of expression, even on the borders of Russia. The staging of troops on the Ukrainian borders is a form of intimidation. If the Kremlin really attacks, the Ukrainian army and civilians will fight for every square meter,” predicts Beckers.
How does he view the Russian position that they want to protect their fellow citizens and not lose their military bases in Crimea? Crimea is Ukrainian territory. It is illegally occupied by Russia and the attempted annexation is not recognized by the international community. Putin has given Russian nationals to residents of Russian-occupied Donbas and Crimea. He wants to make Ukraine a vassal state. Against whom does he want to protect his fellow citizens? Ukraine has never been an aggressor. But the Russian invasion has killed more than 14,000 Ukrainian civilians and soldiers since 2014.”
Ukraine became independent in 1991 and has enshrined in its constitution the ambition to join the EU and NATO in 2019. That is hard on Russia's stomach. “Russia launched its aggression already in 2013-2014 when Ukraine's NATO aspirations were not enshrined in the constitution,” Beckers replied. “So it's not about Ukraine's NATO aspirations but about Russia's desire to expand its political power in another sovereign state.”
Beckers argues in the first place for a political and diplomatic solution, if necessary for heavy economic sanctions against Moscow. “Putin only respects power. The EU's strength lies in sanctions. Gas and oil prices have fed his treasury by almost 200 billion euros. The stronger the tension, the higher the energy prices. Putin uses gas for blackmail and political influence. Heavy sanctions, such as Russia's exclusion from the Swift system and the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, are needed if Putin attacks Ukraine further. All that matters to him is that he is seen by his home as a powerful leader. He will not succumb to sanctions that do not seriously disrupt his economy and cannot afford to lose face.”