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On 12 February, the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant published a potentially explosive interview with Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Halbe Zijlstra. Potentially explosive, because it catches the minister in a lie, potentially threatening the stability of the current, four-party government. With national party leaders heavily involved in the campaign for the upcoming municipal elections, Zijlstra’s party, the governing VVD, cannot be too happy with the revelation. But what is especially embarrassing, is the content of the lie: Zijlstra claims to have met, or at least be in the same room as, Russian President Vladimir Putin and to have heard Putin make several remarks of a geo-political nature. These remarks Zijlstra used as a pretext to warn for war with Russia during a VVD congress in May 2016.

During the speech, Zijlstra can be heard to say that:

I was present in the dacha of Vladimir Putin at the beginning of 2006. I was an employee. I was tucked away in the back of the room where it took place. But I could hear very clearly the answer of Vladimir Putin to the question of what he considered to ‘Greater Russia’. Because Greater Russia is what he wants to return to. And his answer was: that is Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic States. And Kazakhstan was nice to have.

Cringe worthy detail? According to De Volkskrant, Zijlstra is to fly to Moscow on Tuesday, to meet Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov:

The topic of Flight MH17 is high on the agenda. The current cabinet (Rutte III) has openly accused the Russian government of spreading disinformation regarding MH17. Now it appears its own minister of Foreign Affairs has, for years, told an untrue anecdote involving Putin.

Zijlstra admits to having told the story since ‘the beginning of 2014,’ both to VVD and non-VVD audiences. In the story, he was a Shell-employee and visiting the dacha with Shell CEO Jeroen van der Veer. In October 2017 VVD spin-doctors even used the anecdote to parry the critique that Zijlstra does not have the required foreign experience to be Minister of Foreign Affairs. This backfired, as Van der Veer insisted Zijlstra was not present when he met Putin. When directly asked why Van der Veer denied his presence during an interview with De Volkskrant Saturday morning, Halbe Zijlstra answered:

Because it’s true. (…) It’s really quite simple: I wasn’t there.

It is the almost anticlimactic end of a year-long investigation by the paper, which didn’t believe the story when it first broke last year. After months of delaying tactics, and suggestions from VVD spokespersons, a ‘tired, sweater-wearing’ Zijlstra admits at least part of the story is false. But he maintains the contents of the story – by now reduced to ‘hear-say’ from a source he is anxious not to mention – are still true. The lies supposedly were to protect his source.

VK: So you weren’t with Putin?

Zijlstra: Someone else was. He personally told me the story. (…) I thought it was very important that this geopolitical story be told. I referenced it in one-on-one conversations. I pulled the story towards me, to make sure that the person who was present would not be identified as the revealing actor. Because that could have implications for himself or his company.

VK: When did he tell you this anecdote?

Zijlstra: In the first half of 2014. (…)

What follows is a rather embarrassing interview, where Zijlstra tries to argue that he didn’t intend to either glorify himself, or get the story to circulate widely. That he tried to distance himself from it, when it was used to suggest he had foreign experience. But as De Volkskrant points out, he never, until now, outright said he wasn’t there with Putin. But ‘peak cognitive dissonance’ is reached in the following exchange:

VK: Seeing how you are going to Moscow next week, you’re going to get into an akward situation. You told a story about Putin that isn’t true. Aren’t you afraid the Russians will use this against you?

Zijlstra: If they want to discuss this, I’m happy to discuss it with them. But it has to be substantive. I will be happy to discuss what’s happening in Eastern Ukraine and in the Crimea. They should know exactly what’s going on in Putin’s mind, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to them.

VK: The Russians regularly tell the Dutch government and the team investigating MH17 that they are spreading disinformation. Aren’t you afraid that the Russians have found the perfect excuse? Look here: your own minister spreads disinformation.

Zijlstra: It isn’t disinformation.

VK: Well, you said you were there with Putin and that’s not true.

Zijlstra: The content simply is true.

There is a famous Russian fairy tale about a boy who cried “wolf!” Time after time, the villagers would come to his aid, to help fend of a wolf that wasn’t there, until, one day, when there actually was a wolf, they didn’t believe him. The boy, consequently, was eaten because his lies made him unbelievable. Zijlstra asks us to believe there is a wolf, even after being caught lying about seeing it himself. The truth is, he can’t make the claim that the content of his story is true: he has no way of knowing for sure. After having lied about it for years, there is no reason to believe what he tells us now, is true. The fact, that he doesn’t realise the weakness of his own position is troublesome indeed.

On the internet, meanwhile, the meme squad got going, using #halbewaserbij (Halbe was there).