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The US Secretary of State gave a war-time rock performance at a bar in Kyiv, leaving some Ukrainians scratching their heads

Matthew Loh   

The US Secretary of State gave a war-time rock performance at a bar in Kyiv, leaving some Ukrainians scratching their heads
  • Antony Blinken gave Ukrainians a performance of "Rockin' in the Free World" at a bar on Tuesday.
  • But his jam session wasn't well-received by all, with some local politicians slamming Blinken.

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

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

Blinken sat among an entourage of officials in the Barman Dictat, a hot spot in the capital, before the Ukrainian band 19.99 invited him onstage as a "biggest friend of Ukraine."

Slinging a crimson electric guitar onto his shoulder, Blinken told the crowd he knew they were facing 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. So much of the world is with you and they're fighting not just for a free Ukraine, but for the free world. And the free world is with you, too."

The US top official strummed slowly as the band joined him. They launched into song, with Blinken occasionally leaning into his mic to sing the chorus of Young's rock hit.

This performance may have been part of Blinken's push to bring music into official foreign affairs. In September, the US State Department under Blinken launched the Global Music Diplomacy Initiative, which he commemorated with a performance of "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man" by Muddy Waters.

'Tactless and inappropriate'

The war-time guitar diplomacy was soon met with social media backlash from Ukrainian observers and politicians, who questioned the timing of the performance as Kyiv's troops struggled to hold off Russia's advance in the northeast.

"The message is easy to understand. But it doesn't resonate," Ukrainian parliamentarian Bohdan Yaremenko wrote on Facebook,

Yaremenko pointed to US support for Ukraine no longer being guaranteed, with a monthslong delay of aid that crippled Ukraine on the battlefield and Trump hinting he may tell Kyiv to negotiate with Russia if he's elected.

"For ten years, we've been explaining to the free world that we are defending it too," he wrote.

Oleg Simoroz, a Ukrainian veteran who lost both of his legs in the war, criticized the performance as "simply tactless and inappropriate."

"So many people die every day because we don't have enough weapons and enough support from our allies," he wrote.

Valeriy Chaly, a former Ukrainian ambassador to the US, told the AFP: "With all due respect, it's a mistake. The message is wrong."

"Kharkiv region is wiped off the face of the earth, people are leaving their homes," wrote Svitlana Matviyenko, head of the Ukrainian NGO Agency for Legislative Analysis. "Kharkiv is under constant blows of KABs, Sumy region is preparing, and a top US official sings songs in a Kyiv bar."

Russia launched a ground assault on Kharkiv over the weekend, capturing several settlements and forcing Ukrainian troops to retreat from other villages. Ukrainian defenses are said to have been lacking in the area, with Ukrainian Armed Forces chief Oleksandr Syrskyi saying on Monday that the situation had "significantly worsened."

'Russia wants us to stop living'

Some Ukrainians supported Blinken's performance. One Kyiv resident, Polina, 26, told The Guardian that it signified that Ukrainians are defying Russia's war and enjoying nightlife.

"Russia wants us to stop living and stop having fun," she said. "The war is everywhere, but it doesn't mean you can't go to a bar. I feel thankful 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 stop going out and letting off steam at bars. It's necessary for us."

Ukrainian journalist Illia Ponomarenko wrote on X that Blinken's performance may have taken place "at a bad time" but defended the US official as one of the top administrators for US support of Ukraine.

"Seriously — secretary Blinken is currently the last person we need to focus our bitterness and anger on," he wrote.

The lyrics of "Rockin' in the Free World" are often seen as a criticism of American patriotism and George H.W. Bush's administration. Some of its lines parody the former president's well-known phrases like "a thousand points of light," which Bush popularized in a push for volunteerism during his inauguration.

But its title also became known for 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 seems to have waned, given its use in multiple presidential campaigns, including former President Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

The US State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent outside regular business hours by Business Insider.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials have been reportedly pleading with the Biden administration to allow them to use US weapons to hit targets on Russian soil, saying they knew Moscow's troops were massing on the border near Kharkiv but couldn't respond.

Ukraine has relied heavily on US artillery but struggled to keep its weapons in action last year when ammunition supplies dwindled amid a delay in Congress for billions in aid.

In late April, after months of political roadblocks, the US approved a new $61 billion package for Ukraine, including about $25.7 billion of military equipment.

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