Ukraine has 'window of opportunity' this year to take back territory from Russia before 'war fatigue', says Czech Republic's president

President Petr Pavel was speaking on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, where leaders of the alliance's 31 member states are meeting for a two-day conference.

Czech Republic's President Petr Pavel, left, welcomes his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the Prague Castle in Prague, Czech Republic, Thursday, July 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
Image: Czech Republic's President Petr Pavel with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this month
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Ukraine has a "window of opportunity" this year to win back as much territory as possible from Russia because it will become harder to mount new operations and allies will start to suffer "war fatigue", the leader of the Czech Republic has told Sky News.

President Petr Pavel, speaking on the sidelines of a major NATO summit, also said that a number of important elections in 2024, including in Ukraine, Russia and the United States, will create a "completely different situation" and he raised the prospect of a need for negotiations to end the fighting.

Turning to NATO, he said allies must this week in Lithuania give a clear message that Ukraine can start the process of membership as soon as its war with Russia is over as anything less would "probably not be satisfactory" and could damage morale on the frontline.

Mr Pavel, a former armed forces chief and former top military leader in NATO, said that "in an ideal world" victory for Ukraine would be defined by the full restoration of Ukrainian land.

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Pic: AP
Image: Ukrainian soldiers prepare a rocket launcher on the frontline. Pic: AP

But "I think, realistically, that the situation will look like slightly different and that we will see the situation when Ukraine will be ready to start negotiations once they expire all the possibilities of advancing," he said, speaking in English.

This would probably be the same for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"If Russia doesn't see any chance of progressing further, it will be a beginning of talks because the other option would be a frozen conflict which will not serve either side.

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"So, what Ukraine is now aiming for is to get control of as much territory as possible by the end of this year, because then we'll have an entirely different situation."

He said, for the Ukrainian military, it would become "much more difficult to restore forces for another potential counteroffensive".

Speaking very frankly, the Czech leader also pointed to next year's various elections and noted that the "willingness of supporting countries will drop down because, with war fatigue, it's a natural phenomenon that support is fading out with time".

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"We all understand that there is a window of opportunity this year and that's why many of us argue let's give Ukraine whatever they need to extend success as far as possible to have the most advantageous position for negotiations once they start."

Asked whether he thought this meant negotiations between Ukraine and Russia would start in 2024, the Czech president said: "It depends on the situation.

"I believe that by the end of this year, wherever operations will go on will slow down because of winter, because of fatigue, because of lack of ammunition, lack of resources, even human resources, and that might lead on both sides to [the] conviction that it's a right time to start negotiations."

Rishi Sunak and Britain's Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace arrive at the NATO leaders summit in Vilnius, Lithuania July 11, 2023. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins
Image: Rishi Sunak and Britain's Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace arrive at the NATO leaders summit in Vilnius

The president was speaking as the leaders of NATO's 31 member states as well as other partners, including Ukraine, were meeting in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, in Russia's backyard, for a two-day conference.

He said a failure by allies to send a strong signal about the prospect for Ukraine's membership to NATO would hit the morale of Ukrainian troops on the frontline.

"I hope it will be strong and clear enough to demonstrate that we are ready to start the accession process once the war is over," Mr Pavel said in an interview on Tuesday, a few hours before he was due to join other NATO leaders for the start of the summit.

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"This should be declared very clearly. Anything beneath this clear message will probably not be satisfactory."

Asked what sense he had about the way discussions were going, he said: "There is a vast majority of NATO members that would support such clear language.

"However, there are still some allies who have some concerns and as usual we will probably see the final language at the meeting that will start in a couple of hours… I am myself curious where the meeting will lead us."

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