From 1429 to 2023: A Lithuanian’s Experience at the Vilnius NATO Summit
The NATO Summit in Vilnius was an extraordinary event in the history of Lithuania. It was so extraordinary, in fact, that it was the second largest gathering ever of national leaders in the Lithuanian state. It was second only to the Congress of Lutsk, hosted by Vytautas the Great, in 1429.
Like in 1429, in 2023 they used the “Vytis” as the Summit’s logo (see above, right?) and leaders discussed issues of security guarantees and regional security between the Turks, Moldovans, Russians, Poland, Western Europe, and Eastern Europe. Unlike in 1429, in 2023 Turks are now allies, Russians are aggressors, and a new player has taken hold as the most powerful player: The United States of America.
If Lutsk and its now-home country of Ukraine had remained as the center of power and if Ukraine fully got its way in 2023, the alliance of nations probably would have joined Ukraine as one larger alliance. Alas, for better or worse, power shifted west and Ukraine settled to receive a conditional invitation to the alliance. How things have changed over the centuries.
Landing in Lithuania, after flying over a land filled with farms mixed among the forest, I was greeted by a sign at the Vilnius airport that said “Welcome Sweden and Ukraine to NATO!”
I curled my lips in a smile. Neither Sweden nor Ukraine’s future in NATO were guaranteed at that point. Past the wishful sign, a pair of patriot missile batteries pointed to the sky, protecting the city and its guests from any incoming rockets. People were saying Vilnius was the safest city in the world during the NATO Summit. I believe it. The plane landed, and we cruised past a few more patriot batteries — I lost count how many there were. Maybe a dozen.
That moment, seeing those patriot batteries, hit me like a bag of bricks. We are at war, even if people like me aren’t shedding any blood. That grim fate is reserved for my Ukrainian brothers and sisters. I turned my head away from the others on the plane, the weapons of war forcing me to not ignore the reality of war, and a few tears escaped by grip.
In their historic capitol, Lithuanians still wandered the streets, mixed occasionally by foreign guests discussing the future of the free western world. Ukrainian flags outnumbered Lithuanian flags, and occasionally, a military helicopter flew overhead. Over the next few days, the Lithuanians would gradually leave, the streets would be shut down, and by Tuesday, July 11th, police lined the street and protected their esteemed guests.
On the morning of July 11th, I stepped off the shuttle with a familiar face who shared stories with me as we walked down the tree-lined path to the NATO Summit venue. He told me he was from the surrounding neighborhood, so I could tell that having foreign leaders near his childhood home provided him with extra meaning.
He shared a story of how in this neighborhood we walked, he participated in the notorious protest on January 13, 1991, when Soviet tanks tried to reinvade newly independent Lithuania.
Armed only with their bodies, voices, and a resolve for freedom, Lithuanians that day stopped the tanks from taking the Parliament and TV Tower. Despite being unarmed, Soviet tanks rolled over protesters, killing 14 of them near the TV Tower, just a few blocks from where we walked. Now, because of the protection of powerful allies like NATO, Lithuania has no substantial fear of enemy tanks from Russia rolling where we stood. Ukraine’s fate is tragically different.
Once we got past the security guards, the male ones being particularly tall, I saw there were three general venues for the NATO Summit. One was in LitExpo, Vilnius‘ convention center. LitExpo was where all the actual world leaders gathered like President Biden, PM Trudeau, President Macron, etc etc etc. Outside LitExpo were two temporary smaller buildings, one for the media and the other for the Public Forum where people like me had the privilege to sit in on two riveting days of panel discussions.
For policy nerds like me, even though the panels lasted from 9am to 7:30pm, I was hooked as prime ministers, defense secretaries, and leading experts each conveyed their thoughts. NATO Secretary Stoltenberg conveyed that NATO is supporting a war of attrition in Ukraine and that NATO will support Ukraine “as long as it takes”. Others, like Gary Kasparov (chess grandmaster and leading Russian opposition leader), passionately pleaded to seek an end to the war through Ukrainian victory and was not afraid to talk about the collapse of the Russian empire. I’m personally skeptical of a ‘war of attrition’ strategy, wondering if Mr. Kasparov would beat me in chess while using an attrition strategy or beat me in a few well-considered moves.
The panelists also said some other interesting things. For example, a number of panelists said that Russia’s nuclear saber rattling was all just Russian propaganda without any real substance. As one panelist pointed out, if Russia used nuclear warheads on the battlefield, this would prohibit Russian troops from advancing forward in places where nuclear bombs would detonate.
I also heard at least two other panelists, one British and another French, admit to being naïve to the Russian threat. I wonder if they remember those tanks that rolled over innocent protesters at the TV Tower. Eastern Europeans don’t forget that kind of terror.
One panelist said something I thought was interesting — maybe because it was me who asked the question. After one panel discussed NATO’s role in combatting climate change, the moderator asked young people to ask questions since climate change would be an issue facing us. Me, taking a look around the room and realizing I must be one of those youths, raised my hand and walked over to the podium.
My voice choked, but I got my question in (video link). The panel talked about how climate change was directly impacting governments, society, and the military now — a point I found powerful. So I wondered out loud how this message was resonating in the US, where climate change denialism is a little too commonplace. It turns out the US military is doing something about it and is advancing towards net zero carbon emissions. Huh, you learn something new every day.
If I may, I’d like to close by jumping on my soapbox, and I’d like to do this as possibly the NATO Summit’s sole Vytautas attendee. In 1429 in the Congress of Lutsk, under the leadership of people like Vytautas the Great, there was a unity among Eastern European people. This unity, I believe, led to the region being able to defend itself and provide a relatively peaceful existence compared to other regions at the time.
Today, countries like the United States, the UK, Germany, and in a way Russia, hold all the cards to decide the fate of Eastern Europe. Eastern European countries individually try to fight how they can — Ukraine with blood and the rest providing the most support per capita. During the NATO Summit, Eastern European countries were the ones advocating the hardest for Ukraine to join NATO asap, and for better or worse, the opinions of the United States and Germany ruled the day.
Look, I’m grateful for the support the United States and my American friends are providing for Ukraine and Eastern Europe. I’m also grateful for the level-headed leadership of the US government, and I will do everything in my power to make sure that support lasts. But that support might not last forever.
The day after the Summit, 89 Republican members of Congress voted to cut $300 million in military aid for Ukraine (up from 57 House Republicans who voted to cut aid last year. Zero Democrats voted against either). Whenever an issue becomes partisan, that is the fastest way to kill that issue (think about abortion, gun violence, climate change, etc). Who knows what will happen when Ukraine becomes a full-blown wedge issue and US-government support for Ukraine stops? At the rate at which Eastern Europe depends on the US for its protection, that won’t be a good day.
So we Eastern Europeans need to stay united, and I want to continue to thank our friends and allies who’ve shown such steadfast support. Call your members of Congress, thank them for their support if they support Ukraine, and ask them why they don’t support Ukraine if they don’t. Stray from accusations, we need to maintain trust. Tell the story of how destructive the Russian government can be — in my experience most people just don’t know if it’s not in their family history.
As long as we stay united, that scary future might not come tomorrow, and we can resolve the issues facing us today.