THE HAGUE (AFP) - Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra was in hot water on Monday (Feb 12) after admitting he lied about attending a controversial 2006 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The country's new top diplomat admitted over the weekend that "contrary to his previous claims, he was never present at the meeting with the Russian president," the centre-left daily De Volkskrant said.
The revelation is an embarrassment for Zijlstra as he heads on Tuesday to Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
A member of Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberal VVD party - the leading party in the country's ruling coalition - Zijlstra had previously insisted he was present at the meeting at Putin's dacha 12 years ago which included Jeroen van der Veer, Shell's former chief executive.
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.
"I clearly heard Vladimir Putin's answer about what his understanding was of 'Greater Russia'," Zijlstra told the audience.
Putin "wants to go back to a 'Greater Russia' and his answer was that it included Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic States," he said at the time.
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.
"It wasn't clever. I should have done it differently," said Zijlstra, adding he had "borrowed" the story from someone else who was at the meeting and had told him about it.
Zijlstra's appointment in October as foreign minister raised eyebrows in The Netherlands because of his perceived lack of diplomatic credentials.
"His spin doctors" had used the story of the Putin meeting "to ward off criticism about his lack of foreign experience," Volkskrant said.
Asked why he had lied, Zijlstra told the respected daily he "wanted to protect the actual source" who was at the meeting.
Asked on Monday about the issue, Rutte said "the content is true, but he should not have claimed to be somewhere when he was not."
Rutte however said he still found his foreign minister to be credible as "the crux of the story is true," he told reporters.
Among other things, Zijlstra is due to discuss with Lavrov the Dutch-led probe into the downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014.