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Blinken gives wartime rock performance in kyiv, confusing some in Ukraine

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken let loose after a series of meetings with Ukrainian officials on Tuesday by performing Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” at a Kyiv bar.

The four-and-a-half minute performance received mixed reviews in Ukraine, with several local politicians calling Blinken’s guitar rock-out insensitive amid a new Russian offensive in Kharkiv.

Blinken sat among an entourage of officials at Dictat de Barman, a hotspot in the capital, before the Ukrainian band 19.99 invited him on stage as “Ukraine’s greatest friend.”

Tossing a crimson electric guitar over his shoulder, Blinken told the crowd he knew they were facing “a really, really difficult time.”

“Your soldiers, your citizens, especially in the northeast, in Kharkiv, are suffering greatly,” he said. “But they need to know, you need to know. The United States is with you. Much of the world is with you and they are fighting not only for a free Ukraine, but for the free world. And the free world is with you too.”

The senior American official scratched slowly as the group joined him. They launched into song, with Blinken occasionally leaning into his microphone to sing the chorus of Young’s rock hit.

This performance may have been part of Blinken’s efforts to introduce music into official foreign affairs. In September, the US State Department, under Blinken’s leadership, launched the Global Music Diplomacy Initiative, which it commemorated with a performance from “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” by Muddy Waters.

“Tactless and inappropriate”

The wartime guitar diplomacy was quickly met with backlash from observers and Ukrainian politicians on social media, who questioned the timing of the performance as kyiv’s troops struggled to halt the advance of Russia in the northeast.

“The message is easy to understand. But it does not resonate,” Ukrainian parliamentarian Bohdan Yaremenko wrote on Facebook.

Yaremenko stressed that US support for Ukraine was no longer guaranteed, with a months-long delay in aid crippling Ukraine on the battlefield and Trump hinting he might ask kyiv to negotiate with Russia if he is elected.

“For ten years, we have explained to the free world that we defend it too,” he wrote.

Oleg Simoroz, a Ukrainian veteran who lost both legs during the war, criticized the performance as “simply tactless and inappropriate”.

“So many people are dying every day because we don’t have enough weapons or enough support from our allies,” he wrote.

Valeriy Chaly, former Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, told AFP: “With all due respect, this is a mistake. The message is false.”

“The Kharkiv region is being wiped off the face of the earth, people are leaving their homes,” wrote Svitlana Matvienko, director of the Ukrainian NGO Agency for Legislative Analysis. “Kharkiv is under constant KAB attacks, the Sumy region is bracing, and a senior US official is singing songs in a Kiev bar.”

Residents self-evacuate a multi-story residential building hit by a Russian UMPB D-30 glide bomb on May 14, 2024 in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Residents self-evacuate a multi-story residential building hit by a Russian UMPB D-30 glide bomb on May 14, 2024 in Kharkiv, Ukraine.

Yevhen Titov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

Russia launched a ground attack on Kharkiv over the weekend, capturing several settlements and forcing Ukrainian troops to withdraw from other villages. Ukrainian defenses were reportedly failing in the region, with Ukrainian armed forces chief Oleksandr Syrskyi saying on Monday that the situation had “significantly deteriorated.”

“Russia wants us to stop living”

Some Ukrainians supported Blinken’s performance. Kiev resident Polina, 26, told the Guardian it meant Ukrainians were defying the Russian war and enjoying the nightlife.

“Russia wants us to stop living and stop having fun,” she said. “War is everywhere, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go to a bar. I’m grateful he even came to kyiv and I thought it was great.”

Mariia Lobyntseva, 27, an artist in kyiv, told the Los Angeles Times: “Young people can’t help but go out and let off steam in bars. It’s necessary for us.”

Ukrainian journalist Illia Ponomarenko wrote on

“Seriously, Secretary Blinken is the last person we should be focusing our bitterness and anger on right now,” he wrote.

The lyrics of “Rockin’ in the Free World” are often seen as a criticism of American patriotism and the administration of George HW Bush. Some of his lines parody the former president’s well-known expressions like “a thousand points of light,” which Bush popularized in his pro-volunteering campaign during his inauguration.

But its title also became known because of how it was coined: when Young’s guitarist uttered the phrase after the Soviet Union canceled one of his concerts.

The song’s traditional interpretation appears to have declined, given its use in several presidential campaigns, including those of former President Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders.

The US State Department did not immediately respond to an after-hours request for comment from Business Insider.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials reportedly begged the Biden administration to allow it to use U.S. weapons to hit targets on Russian soil, saying they knew Moscow’s troops were massing on the border near Kharkiv but could not answer.

Ukraine has relied heavily on U.S. artillery but struggled to keep its weapons in action last year when ammunition reserves dwindled due to Congress’s delay in securing billions in aid.

In late April, after months of political hurdles, the United States approved a new $61 billion program for Ukraine, including about $25.7 billion in military equipment.


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