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NATO assures Zelenskiy of support even as world's eyes turn to Mideast

By Andrew Gray and Idrees Ali

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -NATO members assured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Wednesday that they would sustain military aid to his country as it braces for another wartime winter, even as Western attention focuses on the fallout from Hamas' attack on Israel.

Defence chiefs issued the assurances as Zelenskiy visited NATO headquarters in Brussels for the first time since Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine in February last year.

His visit came against the backdrop not only of violent turmoil in the Middle East but also political turbulence in the U.S. Congress, which has held up approval of aid for Ukraine.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he was confident that members of the military alliance would continue to support Ukraine as it was in their own security interests.

"We have the capability and the strength to address different challenges at the same time," he added. "We don't have the luxury of choosing only one threat and one challenge."

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin delivered a similar message.

“In terms of our ability to continue to support both the efforts in Ukraine and support the efforts in Israel as well, absolutely, we can do both and we will do both,” Austin told reporters.

After attending a meeting of the U.S.-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group of some 50 nations that support Kyiv, Zelenskiy welcomed the assurances but acknowledged there was uncertainty.

"My question was ... will your support be less than now?" Zelenskiy told reporters. "The partners say 'no'. But who knows how it will be? I think nobody knows."

Zelenskiy stressed Ukraine's need for more air defence systems - as it braces for Russian attacks on its energy grid through the coldest months of the year - as well as artillery and ammunition to allow its forces to keep fighting in winter.

Ukraine started a counteroffensive over the summer to try to retake territory in the south and east but has so far failed to make major breakthroughs in Russia's network of fortifications and minefields.

"The winter air defence is a significant part of the answer to the question of when this war will end and whether it will end justly for Ukraine," Zelenskiy said.

FRESH PLEDGES

Stoltenberg pointed to a series of fresh pledges of military aid to show NATO members remained committed to Kyiv.

Austin announced a new $200 million defence package for Ukraine on Wednesday, including air defence munitions and weapons to counter Russian drones.

Washington has provided $44 billion to supply Kyiv with dozens of tanks, thousands of rockets and millions of rounds of ammunition, but support is falling among Americans of both main political parties.

On the eve of the meeting, Germany announced a new "winter package" worth around 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) that includes new air defence systems, while a UK-led group of countries announced help with mine-clearing.

Zelenskiy also secured promises of F-16 fighter jets from Denmark and Belgium, though the latter were slated for delivery in 2025.

He made explicit comparisons between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.

"Terrorists like Putin or like Hamas seek to hold free and democratic nations as hostages and they want power," he said.

Russia has denied targeting civilians and has blamed the West for the war in Ukraine, saying it had no choice but to launch what it calls a "special military operation" there. It describes as baseless suggestions from Ukraine that Moscow is seeking to inflame the situation in the Middle East.

Hamas, which calls for Israel's destruction, says its attack was justified by the plight of Gaza under a 16-year-old blockade and the deadliest Israeli crackdown for years in the occupied West Bank.

(Reporting by Marine Strauss, Andrew Gray, Idrees Ali, Sabine Siebold, Olena Harmash; Writing by Andrew Gray and Matthias Williams; Editing by Benoit Van Overstraeten, Andrew Cawthorne, Angus MacSwan and Cynthia Osterman)