VILNIUS — The city’s walls were plastered in blue and yellow posters, streets teemed with Ukrainian flags, and locals commiserated with their own memories of Russian imperialism. Kyiv couldn’t have asked for a friendlier city than the Lithuanian capital to make its case to join NATO.
Before meeting with NATO leaders for dinner on Tuesday evening, Volodymyr Zelenskyy appeared at Lukiškės Square in central Vilnius, where thousands of locals loudly cheered him on and waved Ukrainian and Lithuanian flags.
“Thanks Lithuania, thank you very much,” Zelenskyy said in English to loud applause, before continuing in Ukrainian to call for more support and a swift NATO accession by his country.
“It was very emotional,” said Karolina Vitonienė, who watched alongside friends and her daughter.
“We understand that they [the Ukrainians] are fighting for our freedom as well,” the Vilnius resident said. “Each of us remembers what it’s like to live under occupation, or knows the stories from their families … That’s why Zelenskyy’s speech had such a strong impact.”
Vitonienė, who is now 37, said she had a dream when she was five years old, that a Russian tank might roll over her home. She looked down at her daughter and said: “We want our children to have a future in which there are no dreams about tanks.”
While NATO leaders didn’t give Ukraine the clear path to future membership that Zelenskyy pushed for, he did receive broad security promises from various countries — and this very welcoming reception.
The summit brought leaders from the alliance’s 31 member states and others, like Zelenskyy, to the Lithuanian capital of about 600,000 inhabits, causing roadblocks and traffic jams in the picturesque city center and on highways. Still, locals welcomed the event.
“It definitely puts us on the world map. Everybody is now talking about us,” said Viltaras Krisciunas from Vilnius, who watched Zelenskyy’s speech in the square alongside his wife Giedre, wrapping giant Lithuanian flags around their bodies.
Oksana Baitala, a young woman from the Lviv region of western Ukraine, who now lives in Lithuania, watched with her mother, Uliana. She said she was grateful for the support and the solidarity of the Lithuanian and European people.
Even though the summit led to no clear NATO membership perspective for Ukraine, Baitala said she was optimistic the summit marked a historic moment.
Rytis Povilaitis from Vilnius, who wore a shirt with the American Himars missile launcher displayed across it, said it was impressive that Zelenskyy — the leader of a country at war whom Russia is trying to execute — delivered a speech in front of thousands of people in a foreign country.
“The most important thing for me was when Volodymyr said that when Ukraine steps into NATO, it will make NATO more powerful,” he said. “I think he was more than right.”