© Reuters. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala visit the Velvet Revolution Memorial in Prague, Czech Republic, July 7, 2023. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS
By Robert Muller
PRAGUE (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy won strong backing from the Czech Republic on Friday on a tour of several NATO states to drum up support for Kyiv’s bid to join the military alliance.
Days before a NATO summit, Zelenskiy, in Prague after visiting Bulgaria and before heading to Turkey, made a new call for long-range weapons from Kyiv’s allies including the United States to help defeat Russian forces waging war on Ukraine.
NATO, which meets in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius from July 11-12, is divided over how fast Kyiv should join because of concerns over any move that might take the alliance closer to war with Russia.
Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said his country would welcome Ukraine joining the European Union, and that it supported its accession to NATO “as soon as the war is over”.
“I am convinced that the future of Ukraine is in the European Union, the future of Ukraine is in NATO, and this will ensure that a situation like the one we are experiencing in Europe will not happen again. The Czech Republic is ready to be of maximum assistance,” Fiala told a joint press conference.
“I hope, I believe, that President Zelenskiy will be able to attend the summit in Vilnius in person, and I expect that all the allies in the North Atlantic Alliance will clearly support Ukraine in its aspirations for membership, and the president can certainly count on the vote of the Czech Republic.”
The Czech Republic has been a strong backer of Kyiv by providing military aid and other help, and Fiala promised more attack helicopters and hundreds of thousands more large-calibre ammunition rounds.
Zelenskiy welcomed the “new, powerful, very timely defence package” but said more weapons were needed as Kyiv tries to push Russian forces who still occupy swathes of territory after launching a full-scale invasion in February 2022.
“Without long-range weapons it is difficult not only to carry out an offensive mission but also to conduct a defensive operation,” said Zelenskiy, who wore his trademark military khaki top and trousers.
“First of all, we are talking about long-range systems with the United States and it depends only on them today.”
Kyiv says it has taken back a cluster of villages in southern Ukraine since launching the counteroffensive early last month, but has said repeatedly that it lacks the firepower and air cover to make faster progress.
TALKS IN TURKEY
Zelenskiy arrived in Prague on Thursday, escorted by two Czech Air Force jets, after holding talks in NATO and EU member state Bulgaria, where he said he had secured Sofia’s backing to join the military alliance “as soon as conditions allow”.
Zelenskiy has acknowledged that Kyiv is unlikely to be able to join NATO while it is at war, but says Ukraine needs more than a general statement that the door to membership is open.
“We are talking about a clear signal, some concrete things in the direction of an invitation,” he said on Thursday after talks with Czech President Petr Pavel.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has cited NATO’s expansion towards Russia’s borders over the past two decades as a key reason for his decision to send tens of thousands of troops into neighbouring Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.
He has threatened unspecified action if Ukraine joins NATO.
Zelenskiy will travel on to NATO member Turkey on Friday for talks with President Tayyip Erdogan which Turkish officials said would cover the potential extension of a wartime grain deal allowing the safe export of Ukrainian grain via the Black Sea.
Russia, angry about aspects of the grain deal’s implementation, has threatened not to allow its further extension beyond July 17.