For centuries, the fortunes of the Netherlands, the wind-swept country carved out of North Sea wetlands, have relied on preserving the peace with its global trading partners. Last week’s downing of an airliner carrying 193 Dutch nationals is testing one of its most important relationships, involving companies from Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSA) to Heineken NV. (HEIA)
The Netherlands was Russia’s third-biggest trading partner last year, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The Dutch, home to the busiest container port in Europe and the region’s biggest energy company, send dairy products, meat and machinery to Russia, which the U.S. says is complicit in the attack.
“We’ve passed a turning point,” said Jan Melissen, a senior research fellow at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations. “Even for a trading nation, this is the point when you have to consider whether economic interests are outweighed by principles and values.”
While Malaysian Air Flight 17 was likely caught in military crossfire by a missile rather than a chosen target, it represents the gravest act of violence against Dutch civilians since World War II.
Unlike the U.S., the world’s biggest economy, the Netherlands has always had to be pragmatic when choosing trading partners. Since the founding of the Dutch East India Company, which carried spices from Indonesia back to the canals of Amsterdam, the Dutch set themselves apart from their European neighbors by focusing on financial interests.
For a country smaller than West Virginia, the Netherlands has major trading relations with Russia. From 2011 to 2013, Dutch imports from Russia jumped 20 percent.
Dutch companies including the Port of Rotterdam, Shell and Heineken have a significant eastern exposure. The Port counts on Russia for 15 percent of all its throughput, while Heineken is a major brewer in the country.
Shell, which Deutsche Bank AG estimates has about $6.7 billion of oil and gas producing assets in Russia, is exploring for shale gas and plans to expand its Sakhalin-2 project there. Shell said yesterday that it “monitors trade controls and sanctions closely and responds appropriately to ensure that we comply with all applicable international sanctions and related measures.”
At one point the largest foreign investor in Russia, Shell declined to comment on whether its business would be affected after the downing of the plane. The company lost four employees in the incident, it said yesterday.
“The demand is there and the Shell CEO has visited Russia more than any other nation since he took office to make the Sakhalin-2 expansion a reality,” said Bertrand Hodee, an analyst at Raymond James in Paris.
Royal Philips (PHIA) NV has been selling in Russia since 1898, when Anton Philips got his first order for 50,000 light bulbs. The company, which lost two employees in the crash, called the incident “unacceptable,” while saying governments should lead the investigation.
Russia, where the company employs 1,000 people, accounted for 3 percent of Philips’ business last year. Paintmaker Akzo Nobel NV (AKZA) produces coil coatings in the Russian city of Lipetsk. Russians have also been increasingly consuming dairy products sold by Dutch food company Royal FrieslandCampina.
Ties between Russia and the Netherlands that stretch back to Tsar Peter the Great were the subject of a yearlong celebration in 2013. Even months after unrest between Russia and Ukraine had erupted, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans stressed that relations between the countries were of great importance, suggesting that energy trade between Europe and Russia could help solve the crisis.
Timmermans changed his message after the crash last week.
For the Netherlands, “all options are on the table as it is clear that things have changed since Thursday,” the minister said at a meeting in Brussels. “This is no longer about economy and trade only, but about security.”
The first casualty of the crisis is likely going to be new investment by Dutch companies in Russia, according to Marcel Stoeten, the secretary of the Netherlands-Russia center in Groningen, which was created to promote and support contacts between companies and governments of Russia and the Netherlands.
“I expect companies that were planning to do business in Russia will be hesitant at this point to pursue that, even without sanctions,” Stoeten said.
Another area that may come increasingly under fire is the Dutch practice of marketing itself as a tax haven to Russia.
Russia’s biggest oil, gas, mining and retail companies -- including some run by billionaires close to President Vladimir Putin -- have moved tens of billions of dollars in corporate assets to the Netherlands and other European countries. The firms include OAO Rosneft (ROSN), OAO Gazprom (OGZD), OAO Lukoil (LKOH) and Gunvor Group Ltd., a Geneva-based company that was co-founded by a Putin associate now under U.S. sanctions.
“We have always been against those tax haven constructions,” said Bram van Ojik, the leader of the GreenLeft opposition party. “This is a litmus test on how serious we are about sanctions as they can hurt us as well. We need to be prepared to shoot ourselves in the foot.”