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Ukrainian President Zelensky makes surprise visit to Lithuania to discuss war

By Christian Edwards, Niamh Kennedy and Stephanie Halasz, CNN

(CNN) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made an unannounced visit to Lithuania, a key ally of Kyiv as it battles Russia’s invasion.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said in a statement he was welcoming Zelensky to his country, where the two leaders would discuss the war and Ukrainian “integration into the EU and NATO.”

Zelenksy said the issue of “cooperation on electronic warfare and drones” would also be on the agenda, following sustained Russian air strikes on Ukraine in what has been a bloody start to the new year.

Support for Ukraine in the Baltics has remained resolute while it has wavered in Washington. Ukraine in December received its last package of military aid from the United States until a divided Congress approves the Biden administration’s funding request, which seeks to steel Ukraine as it prepares to enter its third year of war.

Zelensky said that what his country is “sorely lacking” is modern air defense systems. Speaking in Vilnius during a press conference with Nauseda, Zelensky said “regarding the thing that as of today we are unable to produce short-term together with our partners is modern air defense systems. This is sorely lacking.”

“I think you’ve seen, and journalists know the details, that in the last days of December, the ‘holiday’ days for us, and in the first days of January, Russia attacked civilian infrastructure, people, kindergartens, schools, electricity. In total, there were 500 missile and drone strikes. We were able to repel an average of 70% of these attacks. Unfortunately, there were casualties. My condolences to those who lost their loved ones,” Zelensky said.

“That is why we should fight this enemy with technology until we drive them out of our land and the war is over.”

Zelensky arrived Wednesday at the airport in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, on a plane bearing the Ukrainian coat of arms. He will then visit the other two Baltic states, Latvia and Estonia, he said on Telegram, without giving a timeline.

The Ukrainian president last visited Lithuania in July 2023 to attend the annual NATO summit, where he pushed for a clear path for his country to join the alliance and a timeline for its accession.

But despite Zelensky’s urgency and optimism, US President Joe Biden told CNN ahead of the summit that Ukraine could not be admitted to NATO while war was raging on its territory.

Ukraine did, however, secure a streamlined path to future membership. NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg said the bloc had changed Ukraine’s membership path “from a two-step process to a one-step process,” by removing the Membership Action Plan – a burdensome program of economic, defense and security reforms other recently admitted countries had to go through before joining the bloc.

Zelensky received a hero’s welcome from the Lithuanian public when he gave a speech in Lukiskes Square during the summit. Addressing thousands on a stage decked out with the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, Zelensky said that “Ukraine will make NATO stronger.”

Lithuania was the first country to leave the Soviet Union, splitting from the bloc in March 1990. Lukiskes Square once featured a huge state of Lenin – and large crowds gathered to celebrate its removal in 1991. Many in the country retain deep historical resentment towards Russia, which has fueled its staunch support for Ukraine.

Arriving in Vilnius Wednesday, Zelensky once again expressed his “gratitude” towards Lithuania. Writing on X, he thanked his ally for its “uncompromising support for Ukraine since 2014 and especially now, during Russia’s full-scale aggression.”

According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, which monitors and ranks countries’ financial support for Ukraine, Lithuania has committed around 1.4% of its GDP in aid for Ukraine – the second-highest amount among Kyiv’s allies, behind only Norway.

Yulia Kesaieva contributed to this report.

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