Blinken to pledge ongoing support for Ukraine at NATO meeting

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By Simon Lewis and Daphne Psaledakis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will highlight the NATO alliance's ongoing support for Ukraine in its war with Russia in Europe this week, the top State Department official for Europe said on Monday, even as the war in Gaza continues to take up much of the Biden administration's bandwidth.

The war between Israel and Hamas and heightened tensions in the wider Middle East have raised concerns that Washington cannot sustain the level of military and diplomatic support it has given Ukraine since Russia's February 2022 full-scale invasion.

Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs James O'Brien also told reporters that Blinken, who departed on Monday for Brussels, will highlight the ongoing commitment of the United States and its allies as he takes part in the first foreign minister-level meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council in Brussels.

"This is part of the process of finding a place in the alliance, which we've always said is Ukraine's future," he said.

O'Brien said the Biden administration was confident continued military aid for Ukraine had bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, which is considering a request for more funding for Ukraine's defense alongside military aid to Israel and Taiwan.

Asked about a report by Germany's Bild newspaper that the United States and Germany were quietly nudging Kyiv into negotiations with Moscow, O'Brien said Washington does not have such a policy.

"We've always said that this is a matter for Ukraine to decide," O'Brien said.

At a press conference in Brussels on Monday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he expected alliance foreign ministers to "reaffirm NATO’s long-term support" for Ukraine.

The ministers meet on Tuesday and Wednesday in the Belgian capital amid increasing frustration among some NATO members that Turkey and Hungary are holding up Sweden's accession.

Turkey has informed NATO that its parliament will not complete ratification of the bid ahead of the meetings, sources told Reuters last week.

O' Brien said the U.S. anticipates "seeing some positive action very soon".

"Our point to our Turkish allies has been that there's no reason to delay any further," he sad.

Stoltenberg said he was counting on both Turkey and Hungary to complete their ratifications as soon as possible.

"Sweden’s membership will make NATO stronger, and all of us safer," he said. "The time has come."

Blinken will also address the rising tension in the Western Balkans, where NATO is looking at increasing its troop presence amid tensions in northern Kosovo, O'Brien said, adding that Washington supports having a robust NATO-led peacekeeping force in the region.

"Having the north be secure and quiet is the key to making political progress on the roadmap, and on the two countries’ paths towards Europe," he said.

Blinken will also represent the United States at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Skopje, North Macedonia, this week, O'Brien said.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis and Daphne Psaledakis; Additional reporting by Andrew Gray in Brussels; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Chizu Nomiyama and Deepa Babington)