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NATO countries are wrapping up their 2-day summit in Lithuania

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

President Biden and the leaders of 30 other NATO countries are wrapping up their summit in Lithuania today. Biden met Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a day after NATO agreed that Ukraine would eventually be allowed to join the alliance, but didn't say when or exactly how. Joining us now from the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, is NPR's Eleanor Beardsley. Eleanor, two leaders just met, along with other G-7 leaders. What more did President Biden have to say?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, A. Well, President Biden said Ukraine's future lies in NATO, and all the allies agree on that. But he said the leaders of the G-7 aren't waiting for the NATO process to play out to make the long-term commitments necessary for Ukraine to defend itself and deter Russian aggression in the future. Biden said, through bilateral commitments, nations would help Ukraine build a capable defense across land, air and sea. And he called this a powerful statement of the allies' commitment to Ukraine and said they would be with Ukraine for as long as it takes.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so no membership and no real clear path toward it. What was President Zelenskyy's reaction?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Zelenskyy expressed frustration before arriving here in Lithuania. He tweeted that Ukraine not having a timeline for NATO membership was, quote, "absurd." But today, standing next to Biden and the other leaders of the G-7, he expressed gratitude and called the plans practical and unprecedented support for Ukraine on the way to NATO.

MARTÍNEZ: And there's a bit of symbolism here with the summit being held in Lithuania, a former Soviet republic. What's the mood like as the people there watch Russia wage a war on Ukraine, also a former Soviet republic?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, everything feels really close and urgent here, not far from where the war is actually taking place. I've been talking to people in Vilnius. You know, Lithuania is one of the three Baltic nations occupied for 50 years by the Soviet Union. And the idea of NATO collective defense is not some esoteric concept here. It's about real protection from Russia. Let's listen to what some of them had to say, starting with 47-year-old Reema Oberkita (ph), who was pointing visitors in the right direction at an intersection. She's a volunteer at the summit.

REEMA OBERKITA: It's a momentum moment, absolutely. I think it's the hugest event after our independence.

BEARDSLEY: Lithuania, along with neighboring Baltic nations Latvia and Estonia, became independent in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed. She says she's volunteering because she cherishes her country's freedom and prosperity.

OBERKITA: The independence of my country is very important. It's in our blood, and especially having in mind that we have constant threats from Russia and not knowing what's going to be tomorrow, we all have to volunteer and do a lot so Lithuania - to continue being on the spot of the world map.

BEARDSLEY: Kristine Berzina, a Baltic security and defense expert with the German Marshall Fund, echoes this sentiment.

KRISTINE BERZINA: This is an area that has survived incredible oppression, deportations, repeated attacks and risen to independence through nonviolent resistance that had a massive cultural uprising called the Singing Revolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: It was an extraordinary show of mass defiance in the Baltic region of the Soviet Union.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing in non-English language).

BEARDSLEY: In August 1989, almost 2 million people joined hands in a human chain that stretched for more than 400 miles, connecting the capitals of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, to protest the Soviet occupation. Vilnius bears the scars of its long Soviet occupation. Volha Pavek (ph) is playing with her kids in a park. The Lenin statue here was hauled away years ago, but she points to an imposing building across the street.

VOLHA PAVEK: And maybe you know that it's a KGB building, and now it's a museum. I was in every museum of KGB (laughter) - in Tallinn, in Tartu and also in Budapest - and it's the most authentic because they closed it in and never change anything.

BEARDSLEY: The names of those tortured by the Soviet security service in basement cells you can still visit are engraved on the building's outer wall. Seventy-five-year-old Laura Valeniena (ph) is reading a book in the park across the street. She remembers Soviet rule well.

LAURA VALENIENA: (Through interpreter) Everything was told - what we have to do, how to have to live. There was no need to have your own ideas because they were given by the ones who were ruling the country at that moment.

BEARDSLEY: Volunteer Reema Oberkita says people in the Baltics don't blame other NATO countries for not believing them all these years about Russia.

OBERKITA: Some spoiled countries like living better life who never felt what Russians are - it's normal that they don't understand. You have to feel it. You have to know it.

BEARDSLEY: In its new strategic concept, NATO now designates Russia as its greatest threat, and it plans to scale up troop levels and training in Lithuania and every other country along its eastern flank.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Vilnius. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.