Czech leader says NATO could offer troops to Ukraine if Russia goes beyond Crimea

PRAGUE (Reuters) - The West should take strong action, possibly including sending NATO forces to Ukraine, if Russia tries to annex the eastern part of the country, Czech President Milos Zeman said on Sunday.

“The moment Russia decides to widen its territorial expansion to the eastern part of Ukraine, that is where the fun ends,” Zeman said in a broadcast on Czech public radio.

“There I would plead not only for the strictest EU sanctions, but even for military readiness of the North Atlantic Alliance, like for example NATO forces entering Ukrainian territory,” Zeman said.

Pro-Russian protesters seized state buildings in three east Ukrainian cities on Sunday, triggering accusations from the pro-European government in Kiev that President Vladimir Putin was orchestrating “separatist disorder”.

The Czech Republic has been a NATO member since 1999, joining just weeks before the alliance decided to bomb Yugoslavia, putting the newcomer and Zeman, its then prime minister, to the test.

In the Czech constitutional system it is the government that has the main say in foreign policy, although president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The government resisted strong EU sanctions against Russia after its annexation of Crimea, with Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka pointing out the negative economic impact of such a step.

“... even for me - and I am no hawk - it would be a sort of red line to attempt to annex the eastern part of Ukraine,” Zeman said.

“That is where I would change from a dove to a man who calls for very harsh sanctions.”

Reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Robin Pomeroy