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Antony Blinken's guitar diplomacy draws criticism in Ukraine

Many Ukrainians felt it inappropriate that the secretary of state was rocking out at all, given that, in their view, Washington’s tardiness is largely to blame for their struggles on the battlefield against Russia.
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During a surprise visit to Kyiv, Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the stage alongside a local band, 19.99, and played Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

Wearing a tucked-in black shirt and blue jeans and wielding a cherry red Epiphone guitar, Blinken, 62, started with a few words to the crowd at Barman Dictat, a legendary, speakeasy-style venue in a basement in downtown Kyiv.

“I know this is a really, really difficult time. Your soldiers, your citizens, particularly in the northeast in Kharkiv, are suffering tremendously,” he said. “But they need to know, you need to know, the United States is with you. They’re fighting not just for a free Ukraine but for the free world.”

The performance itself has received mixed reviews. Blinken’s guitar was out of tune. Like many other politicians, including former President Donald Trump, Blinken appears to have misinterpreted the 1989 rock hit as a patriotic anthem. In fact, the “free world” is Young’s ironic reference to America’s failings, including homelessness and gun crime.

Artistic merits aside, many Ukrainians felt it inappropriate that Blinken was rocking out at all, given that, in their view, Washington’s tardiness is largely to blame for their struggles in the battlefield against Russia. After months of wrangling and pushback by Republicans, Congress last month finally approved a $60 billion military aid package. But many say it has all been too little, too late.

“Six months of waiting for the decision of the American Congress” has “taken the lives of very, very many defenders of the free world,” Bohdan Yaremenko, a lawmaker and former diplomat with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s political party, said in a post on Facebook reacting to Blinken’s performance.

“Yes, we are very grateful for the vital help of the United States. Without it, we would probably have lost this war,” he said. “But we also can’t unsee everything that gives the impression that what the United States performs for the free world is not rock ’n’ roll, but some other music similar to Russian chanson” — referring to a genre of traditional Russian music.

The United States will back Ukraine until the country's security is "guaranteed," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a speech in Kyiv on May 14, 2024.
Not everybody was thrilled by Secretary of State Antony Blinken's performance with band 19.99.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

“Cultural diplomacy is an important component of our 360-degree approach to foreign policy, where we can meet on serious issues with leaders and still make connections with people through culture,” a U.S. official told NBC News in response to the criticism. “This was a unique moment where the secretary could share his empathy and support for the Ukrainian people through music.”

The official added that while it has been a difficult two years, one of the successes is that the economy is thriving, people are working, and they are out going to restaurants and bars.

“He had the chance to play to an audience that included members of the military and then hear a band made up of members of the military, and he was glad to have the opportunity,” the official said.

Oleh Symoroz, a Ukrainian veteran who lost both his legs in the war, said the performance was “simply tactless and inappropriate.”

He wrote on X that it was “not the right time, not the right time at all. So many people die every day because we don’t have enough weapons and enough support from our allies.” He advised the “secretary of state to visit a military cemetery instead of a bar.”

Not everyone was so down on Blinken’s jam session.

Speaking to the BBC on Wednesday, 19.99’s guitarist, Arsen Gorbach, said it was inspirational to share the stage with Washington’s top diplomat.

“He was connecting with eyes, with our band leader, with me,” Gorbach told BBC Radio 4. “It was our first performance onstage, but it feels like we were a band for two years.”

Meanwhile, Illia Ponomarenko, one of Ukraine’s best-known war reporters, said, “Blinken is currently the last person we need to focus our bitterness and anger on.”

Ponomarenko accepted that Blinken may have chosen a “bad time” for the cameo and that the U.S. “policy towards Russia’s war has major flaws,” but he chided his 1.2 million X followers that “we have more important things to do.”

“Particularly thanks to people like Secretary Anthony Blinken, or Secretary Lloyd Austin, or Senator Chuck Schumer, our nation still exists and keeps fighting,” he said.