Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra resigned Tuesday after admitting to lying about attending a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2006.
Zijlstra previously claimed he overheard Putin talking about expansionist ambitions at a gathering in 2006, but admitted on Monday that he did not meet the president in person and borrowed the information from a source.
Zijlstra said making his prior statements was “not a smart move,” telling the Dutch parliament Tuesday that it was “the biggest mistake” of his career.
“I should not have done this and I am very sorry,” he said.
“It’s about the credibility of the minister domestically and abroad. And only by being credible can I represent the interests of the Netherlands. To not further impact the position [of foreign minister], I see no other option than to submit my resignation.”
Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whom Zijlstra said was informed of the story some weeks ago, defended the foreign minister on Monday, saying he was still “credible” because the content of the story is “not up for discussion.”
Zijlstra, a close ally of Rutte, previously served as parliamentary leader of the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) before he was appointed foreign minister in Rutte’s third government last October.
Zijlstra said at a VVD party conference in 2016 that he heard the Russian president talking about plans to expand the country’s borders and create a “Great Russia” that would include Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic states and possibly Kazakhstan.
An employee of oil company Shell at the time, Zijlstra had traveled to Russia with Jeroen van der Veer, then CEO of the company. Van der Veer told de Volkskrant Tuesday that Putin’s words should have been interpreted “in a historical context” and did not indicate a military intention to expand the country.
Zijlstra had been set to fly to Russia to meet his counterpart Sergey Lavrov this week.
Before Zijlstra’s resignation, the Russian foreign ministry released a statement Tuesday saying that Russian-Dutch relations have been overshadowed by “an unprecedented anti-Russia campaign launched by the Dutch media.”