By Andrius Sytas
VILNIUS (Reuters) -President Volodymyr Zelenskiy voiced disappointment that Ukraine was not invited to join NATO on Tuesday, telling supporters in the Lithuanian capital: “Is this too big of a wish?”
“NATO will make Ukraine safer, Ukraine will make NATO stronger,” he told the thousands of people, many waving Ukrainian flags, who gathered in central Vilnius, host to an alliance summit, as snipers stood guard on rooftops.
He thanked Lithuania for a “clear, honest and courageous position” in support of Ukrainian membership.
Shortly before the speech, NATO leaders agreed the alliance would extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the military alliance when “members agree and conditions are met.”
Zelenskiy said earlier in the day it would be “absurd” if NATO leaders did not offer his country a timeframe for membership.
Speaking in Ukrainian, he told the crowd: “I travelled here today with belief in a decision, with belief in partners, with belief in a strong NATO, a NATO which does not doubt, which does not lose time, and does not look at any aggressor.”
“I would wish for this belief to become a certainty – certainty in decisions that all of us deserve and which our every soldier expects, our every citizen, our every mother, our every child. And is this too big of a wish?” he asked.
NATO members in eastern Europe have backed Kyiv’s stance, arguing that bringing Ukraine under NATO’s collective security umbrella is the best way to deter Russia from attacking again.
Countries such as the United States and Germany have been more cautious, wary of any move that they fear could draw NATO into a direct conflict with Russia.
During the speech, Zelenskiy said: “No one should ever, ever look back to Moscow.”
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, who took part in the event, handed Zelenskiy a bullet-holed Ukrainian flag, which was then raised on a flagpole. The flag had flown on a Ukrainian tank during battles in Bakhmut.
It was brought to Vilnius by a group of 33 Ukrainian and Lithuanian runners in support of Ukraine as the potential 33rd NATO member. Activists asked the people of Vilnius to display 33,000 flags in their house windows to show support.
“Ukraine is buying us time with their blood, so we can prepare and give a strong retort to Russia,” Nauseda told the crowd.
Security worries are real in Lithuania, where memories of Moscow rule are fresh and a military presence is light.
Lithuania, along with its Baltic neighbours Latvia and Estonia, were the last states to become part of the Soviet Union, when they were annexed in 1940, and the first to declare independence in 1990 when the bloc collapsed.
Members of both NATO and the European Union since 2004, Lithuania is among Ukraine’s staunchest supporters in both blocs and the first in NATO to provide weapons to Ukraine weeks before the Russian invasion.
“We are in NATO ourselves, and the sense of security is incomparable (to what it would be) if we weren’t there,” said Birute Jurksiene, a Vilnius resident.
“This is what we strongly wish for the Ukrainian nation.”
Buses in Vilnius display Ukrainian flags and signs reading “Vilnius loves Ukraine.” Streets are decorated with NATO and Ukrainian flags.
“While you are waiting for this bus, Ukraine is waiting to become a NATO member” is a message on Vilnius public transport buses taking journalists to the summit.
State-owned energy company Ignitis, the largest listed company in the Baltics, topped its summit venue-facing office with large banners calling for Ukrainian membership in NATO.
“Putin, the Hague is waiting for you”, says the big sign hung from the Vilnius municipality, referring to the International Criminal Court in the Dutch city.
(Reporting by Anna Pruchnicka, Olena Harmash, Andrius Sytas, Lewis Macdonald; Writing by Andrius Sytas; Editing by Howard Goller)
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