In a potentially damaging admission on the eve of his first visit to Russian Federation as a member of the Dutch government, Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra on Monday acknowledged lying about attending a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in 2006.
Zijlstra's admission comes ahead of a scheduled meeting on Wednesday with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov with relations at a poor ebb since the downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17 in July 2014, with 196 Dutch citizens onboard.
"He said this included Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic states, and, well, Kazakhstan would be "nice to have", he said in his speech which was recorded on video.
"I was tucked away back in the room, but I could clearly hear Putin's answer to the question about what he considered greater Russia", Zijlstra told a gathering then of his People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, which heads the new Dutch government.
A former Shell contractor, Zijlstra told members at a VVD congress in May 2016 he was there "in the background as an assistant" during the meeting in which Putin allegedly spoke about his definition of a "Greater Russia", the paper said.
But Zijlstra changed his tune over the weekend, telling De Volkskrant that although he still stood by the gist of Putin's words, he should not have lied about attending the meeting.
In a written statement released Monday, Zijlstra admitted that he was, in fact, not present at the meeting, but had heard of the story from a third person who was in attendance.
Zijlstra's appointment in October raised eyebrows in The Netherlands because of his perceived lack of diplomatic credentials.
"The manner in which I wanted to protect my source and underscore my message about Russian Federation was not sensible, that is crystal clear", Zijlstra said. Rutte told reporters he still found his foreign minister to be credible as "the crux of the story is true".