At the Nato summit, I saw a mood of purposeful rebuilding

A shift to bring the alliance into a more cohesive place was apparent at the meetings in Lithuania

The summit in Vilnius concluded on Wednesday. EPA
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On a forest path near the city of Vilnius a teenager zipped on his bike out of an underpass. If he had gone any further he would have encountered, slightly hidden by a strip of trees, a mobile anti-aircraft gun.

The boy shouldn’t have been there at all. Metres away the road was under lockdown because US President Joe Biden was going to pass 90 minutes later in his armoured car, known as the Beast.

I raise this scene because nothing about Nato is normal, not even its impact on host cities. It is both essential for Europe and has just demonstrated it is a pact in which America is the unipolar power.

That is not to say other states cannot change the mood or indeed the entire outlook at key moments.

The biggest claim to this role at Vilnius was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who performed a decided pivot to shore up the western alliance.

The presence of anti-aircraft guns at such summits is not usual but is a reminder the alliance is in clear-and-present danger mode. Germany moved a Patriot missile battery to the country ahead of the conference.

The thinking was obvious. Russia’s border is only a few hundred kilometres from Vilnius. The alliance backing for Ukraine drew warnings from the Kremlin over encroachment of Russia.

Mr Erdogan will have been fully aware of Russia’s frustrations as Nato gathered in the former Soviet bloc. He keeps in touch with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The relationship between the pair was instrumental in last year’s Black Sea Grain Initiative that stabilised global food markets.

Newly re-elected, Mr Erdogan was hailed as a partner for the next five years by leaders from Mr Biden on down. His victory is described by commentators as key to his series of moves towards the West. The decision to ratify the Swedish bid for Nato membership gave the summit an opening lift.

I cannot help but contrast Mr Erdogan’s reaction to the coup against his government in 2015 and the altogether more equivocal reaction by Mr Putin to the Wagner putsch against Moscow last month.

There was no limit to Mr Erdogan’s reaction as soon as the army made its move. He was in the air asserting his authority and assembling loyal commanders to meet the rebels head on. When he prevailed there was a purge of all those who were suspected to be behind the coup.

What happened at the Nato meeting looks like a shift to bring the alliance into a more cohesive place. There are still elements that could go wrong. Watch Hungary for some serious potential spanners in the works.

The overall mood was one of purposeful rebuilding. Some countries will try to tailgate the expanding budgets. The needs are to raise defence spending, boost military production and raise their game in terms of malicious threats to the alliance. For Nato the raised profile is becoming normalised. All the leaders need to shed the outlook of the kid on the bike and put on the game face of the artillery gunner.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy left Kyiv as Mr Biden delivered a rousing speech to Vilnius University. Many of the young people listening had draped Ukraine flags around themselves to listen to Mr Zelenskyy the evening before when he gave a speech.

The generational pull of sympathy for Ukraine is reminiscent of the years after the Cold War when Lithuania hungered to be in the orbit of the West. The Baltic States declared after 9/11 that an attack on the US was an attack on them. Few doubt Ukraine is in the same place now, too.

Facts for those countries have now changed and no matter what happens in Moscow there is no going back.

Poland has decided to be a military bulwark of security that will anchor the region. Sweden and Finland have moved to Nato. The Baltic Sea will be a Nato sea when Sweden’s accession is complete.

The delegates to Nato could sense this even from the high-speed convoys. Yet the alliance has some way to go to catch up with the mood in these countries. This is not the worst of all worlds for Ukraine but it is also not a permanent neverland.

In central Vilnius there is a statue for the guitarist Frank Zappa, who died just after the Iron Curtain fell. The American rocker had no links to the city or the country. The people decided he was a symbol of freedom and so they erected a monument to him.

It remains an “if”, whatever the leaders say, that Ukraine should join Nato. Should it happen, it will be more down to the spirit of the eastern flank than the compromise wrought by delegates assembled in the forested hills this week.

Published: July 13, 2023, 9:30 AM