Every NATO step to support Ukraine will help contain Russia, Czech minister says

FILE PHOTO: EU Foreign Ministers meet in Brussels

By Jan Lopatka and Jason Hovet

PRAGUE (Reuters) - NATO needs to send a signal that it will contain "Russian imperialism" and every move to aid Ukraine will help it do this, Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky said on Wednesday, as the military alliance meets this week to discuss support for Kyiv.

Earlier this month Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged allies to step up aid and involvement in the war in an interview with Reuters, as Ukraine's forces come under growing pressure under along more than 1,000 km of front lines and after

weapons deliveries were delayed for months by internal political wrangling.

Foreign ministers of NATO's 32 members will gather in the Czech capital Prague on Thursday and Friday to hammer out agreements for later when NATO leaders meet in Washington in July, focusing on putting support for Ukraine on a more stable long-term footing.

"NATO is a defensive alliance. We don't want to change anything on that. On the other hand if we want to defend Europe, we are quite open in recognising what is threatening European defence. That is, in my eyes, Russian imperialism," Lipavsky told Reuters in an interview.

"I am calling on other states to have a common strategy to contain Russia, and definitely every step which will help Ukraine, will also help this goal."

The alliance aims to take over the coordination of Western military aid and training for Kyiv from Washington, in a bid to safeguard the continued flow of weapons to Ukraine against any interference by Donald Trump, should he return to the White House next year.

Trump is a Ukraine aid sceptic who has stressed "America First" policies.

Lipavsky said the Czech Republic backed the aim of shifting the responsibility for organising aid for Ukraine from the so-called Ramstein Group, a group of 56 countries, to the alliance itself.

"We are very open to using NATO as a platform and to create, for example, a certain apparatus which would help that... and that will be a very strong message to Putin, that his imperial ambitions will not be unchecked," he said.

Allies will have to overcome the resistance of Hungary which under Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been taking an increasingly confrontational stance towards aid to Ukraine.

Lipavsky said he was not worried the shift would move NATO closer to conflict with Russia - as it was Russia who was escalating the situation. He was also not concerned that countries in the Ramstein Group would rethink support.

"I'm sure that everything will be done in a way that we do not lose anyone on the way. And I think there's a lot of countries which are not in NATO, and they understand the strategic value of supporting Ukraine," he said.

NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg floated the idea of pledging 100 billion euros ($108.16 billion) to Kyiv over the next five years and ministers would gauge initial feelings on this, Lipavsky said.

He added he did not expect any substantial move towards extending a more concrete invitation to Ukraine to join NATO, and said it was more important to focus on the country's immediate needs.

"I think everyone feels that we first need to take practical steps for Ukraine, so Ukraine can survive, and then we can have a more political discussion about membership," he said.

($1 = 0.9246 euros)

(Reporting by Jan Lopatka and Jason Hovet, editing by Sabine Siebold, Alexandra Hudson)