Antony J. Blinken's Guitar Diplomacy Faces Backlash in Ukraine

Secretary of State Blinken surprises Kyiv with live performance.

by Nouman Rasool
Antony J. Blinken's Guitar Diplomacy Faces Backlash in Ukraine
© Omar Havana/Getty Images

During a surprise visit to Kyiv, Secretary of State Antony Blinken took the stage with local band 19.99, performing Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World." Wearing a black, tucked-in shirt and blue jeans, Blinken, 62, wielded a cherry red Epiphone guitar as he addressed the crowd at Barman Dictat, a renowned speakeasy-style venue in downtown Kyiv.

"I know this is a really, really difficult time," Blinken began. "Your soldiers, your citizens, particularly in the northeast in Kharkiv, are suffering tremendously. 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 has sparked mixed reactions. Blinken's guitar was out of tune, and some critics noted that, like other politicians, Blinken misinterpreted the 1989 rock hit as a patriotic anthem.

In reality, Young's "free world" ironically references America's societal issues, including homelessness and gun violence.

Ukrainian Frustration Grows

Beyond artistic concerns, many Ukrainians found Blinken's performance inappropriate, given that they believe Washington's delayed response has exacerbated their battlefield struggles against Russia.

After months of debate, Congress recently approved a $60 billion military aid package, which many feel is too little, too late. Bogdan Yaremenko, a lawmaker and former diplomat from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's party, expressed frustration on Facebook, stating, "Six months of waiting for the decision of the American Congress has taken the lives of very, very many defenders of the free world." Despite expressing gratitude for U.S.

support, Yaremenko criticized the optics of Blinken's performance, likening it to Russian chanson rather than rock 'n' roll. The State Department has not responded to requests for comment on the backlash. Oleh Symoroz, a Ukrainian veteran who lost both legs in the war, called the performance "tactless and inappropriate" on X.

He urged Blinken to visit a military cemetery instead of a bar, highlighting the daily loss of life due to insufficient weapons and support from allies. However, not everyone condemned Blinken's appearance. The guitarist of 19.99, Arsen Gorbach, told BBC Radio 4 that sharing the stage with Blinken was inspirational, despite it being their first performance together.

Illia Ponomarenko, a prominent Ukrainian war reporter, defended Blinken, stating that he is not the person to direct anger towards. Ponomarenko acknowledged flaws in U.S. policy but emphasized the importance of figures like Blinken in Ukraine's ongoing fight.

"Thanks to people like Secretary Antony Blinken, Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Senator Chuck Schumer, our nation still exists and keeps fighting," Ponomarenko tweeted to his 1.2 million followers, urging them to focus on more pressing matters.