NATO’s top diplomats meet as Ukraine seeks easing of weapons restrictions

The military alliance’s foreign ministers due to meet in Prague to prepare an aid package for Ukraine ahead of NATO’s July summit.

NATO foreign ministers are due to meet in Prague in the face of growing calls for leading allies to lift restrictions stopping Kyiv from using Western weapons to strike inside Russia.

The two-day gathering starting on Thursday in the Czech capital is meant to focus on efforts to hammer out a package of support for Ukraine at NATO’s summit in Washington in July.

But the swirling debate over whether to let Kyiv use arms sent by Western backers to strike inside Russia risks overshadowing the meeting.

Ukraine has been pressing its supporters – chiefly the United States – to allow it to use the longer-range weaponry they supply to hit targets inside Russia.

Divided views

The US and Germany have so far refused to permit Kyiv to strike over the border out of fear that it could drag them closer to direct conflict with Moscow.

Before the meeting – which starts with a dinner on Thursday – NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the “time has come” for members of the military alliance to re-consider some of the restrictions.

“Allies are delivering many different types of military support to Ukraine and some of them have imposed some restrictions on the use of these weapons (…) These are national decisions,” Stoltenberg said in a speech.

“But I think that in light of how this war has evolved (…) the time has come to consider some of these restrictions, to enable the Ukrainians to really to defend themselves.”

French President Emmanuel Macron appeared to shift the dial on Tuesday when he said Ukraine should be allowed to “neutralise” bases in Russia used to launch strikes.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, however, remained less committal, saying Ukraine should act within the law – and Berlin had not supplied the weapons to hit Russia, anyway.

Across the Atlantic, the White House said it still opposed Ukraine using US arms to strike inside Russia, although Secretary of State Antony Blinken hinted that the strategy could change.

Moscow, meanwhile, has reacted strongly – with President Vladimir Putin warning there would be “serious consequences” if Western countries give approval to Ukraine.

Those pressing for Ukraine to be given a freer rein say they hope momentum is building for the United States and others to change course as Kyiv struggles to stop Russia’s offensive in the Kharkiv region.

“Clearly, President Macron’s ideas help allies who believe this rule should change,” said a diplomat from one NATO country. “I hope the debates in the US will take Macron’s ideas into consideration.”

As NATO allies wrestle with that issue, ministers in Prague are also trying to come up with a support package that keeps Ukraine satisfied as its hopes of eventual membership remain a distant prospect.

After pressing hard at a summit last year, Kyiv has been told firmly by NATO countries – led by the US and Germany – that it should not expect any concrete progress towards joining the alliance in Washington.

NATO chief Stoltenberg instead wants to get alliance members to make clear, multi-year commitments on how much aid they’ll give to Ukraine in the future.

Last month, he floated an overall target figure of 100 billion euros ($108bn) over five years, but that fell flat among allies confused over what it would involve.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies