Blinken plays ‘Rockin in the Free World’ in war-torn Ukraine

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in the midst of an unannounced trip to Ukraine, surfaced Tuesday evening at a dive bar in Kyiv, ditching the typical diplomatic uniform for jeans and a black shirt — and a cherry red electric guitar.

“And listen, I know this is a really, really difficult time,” Blinken said from the stage of Barman Dictat, where he was surrounded by the members of 19.99, a local Ukrainian rock band. “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, 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.”

Notwithstanding an expression of mild self-doubt — “I don’t know if we can pull this off” — Blinken, playing what appeared to be an Epiphone 335, and the band launched into a rendition of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

The top U.S. diplomat, surely the first person in the presidential line of succession to have his own page as a “verified artist” on Spotify, did his part not only on the guitar but as a backup vocalist. He has shown off his musical chops in public at least once before, playing onstage at the State Department last September.

The Kyiv performance put a musical flourish on his message to the war-torn state, hours after unveiling a long-term bilateral security deal with Ukraine and exhorting the embattled society to uproot corruption amid a new Russian offensive.

“The United States has been by your side from Day One,” Blinken said earlier Tuesday in a speech at the Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. “We’re with you today. And we will stay by your side until Ukraine’s security, its sovereignty, its ability to choose its own path is guaranteed. And we’re far from your only friend. Dozens of countries around the world are not just rooting for Ukraine’s success — they are helping you achieve it.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken performs “Rockin’ in the Free World” with members of 19.99 on Tuesday, May 14, 2024, at the Barman Dictat bar in Kyiv, Ukraine. Blinken sought Tuesday to rally the spirits of glum Ukrainians facing a fierce new Russian offensive, assuring them that they are not alone and that billions of dollars in American military aid on its way to the country would make a “real difference” on the battlefield. (Brendan Smialowski/Pool photo via AP)

The reliability of that support came under question in recent months due to a dispute in Washington that led to a protracted lapse in funding for U.S. military assistance to Ukraine, as Blinken acknowledged. Nonetheless, he cited the passage of a $60 billion aid bill as proof positive of that commitment, despite the delay, and tried to assure his Ukrainian audience that “Ukraine’s bridge to NATO will be bolstered by a series of mutually reinforcing bilateral security agreements” with dozens of individual NATO members.

“Under our own 10-year agreement, the United States will support Ukraine’s defense and security across a range of essential capabilities, from its air force to its air defense, from drones to demining,” Blinken said. “If Russia or anyone else were to attack Ukraine, we will work with Ukraine immediately, at the highest levels, to coordinate how to help you beat back the threat. Our bilateral security agreement will accelerate our joint efforts to build and build up Ukraine’s defense industrial base so that you can produce artillery, ammunition, air defenses, and other crucial weapons you need here in Ukraine.”

That pledge stopped short of the vision outlined Tuesday in a report by a task force chaired by former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The task force, which united former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and 15 other former senior officials from across NATO, argued that Western leaders must abandon their reticence to invite Ukraine into NATO if they want to remain credible and discourage Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions.

“This report concludes that to avoid an open-ended war, NATO leaders must demonstrate their irreversible, collective commitment to Ukraine,” they wrote in the report. “To do so they should invite Ukraine to start accession talks to join NATO. A credible NATO membership perspective is a means to persuade Russia it will not gain from continuing its illegal war. Inviting Ukraine now to start accession talks can pressure Russia to end the war and to give Ukraine a fair chance at winning the peace. Further delaying an invitation would have the opposite effect.”

Blinken, for his part, implied that Ukraine would not be admitted into NATO or the European Union in the absence of continued anti-corruption reforms.

“The choices that you make, the kind of democracy that you build, will determine the strength and the staying power of the coalition by Ukraine’s side,” Blinken said. “Winning on the battlefield will prevent Ukraine from becoming part of Russia. Winning the war against corruption will keep Ukraine from becoming like Russia.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses students and professors on Tuesday, May 14, 2024, at Igor Sikorsky Polytechnic Institute in Kyiv, Ukraine. Blinken arrived in Kyiv on Tuesday in an unannounced diplomatic mission to reassure Ukraine that it has American support as it struggles to defend against increasingly intense Russian attacks. (Brendan Smialowski/Pool via AP)

That statement clanged in the ears of some Ukrainian listeners, given the widespread perception that Ukrainian forces are being battered near Kharkiv due to the lapse in U.S. funding and the demand by President Joe Biden’s team that Ukrainian forces refrain from using American weapons to target Russian troops in Russian territory.

“I understand what he is trying to say, but it also feels a bit out of touch with reality,” Kyiv School of Economics president Tymofiy Mylovanov, a former Ukrainian economy minister, wrote on social media. “Corruption is a critical issue but Ukraine has made major progress in combating it. So, [Blinken] is correct in discussing the importance of success in fighting corruption. Yet, he is speaking at the time when Russia is expanding the front and many Ukrainians are dying. A major reason for the Russia current success and for people dying is the delay in the US aid.”

Mylovanov also noted that Biden’s team “won’t allow [Ukraine] to strike Russia on Russian territory,” a restriction that U.S.-based analysts also have criticized.

“U.S. policy has effectively created a vast sanctuary in which Russia has been able to amass its ground invasion force and from which it is launching glide bombs and other long-range strike systems in support of its renewed invasion,” Institute for the Study of War analyst George Barros wrote Monday in the latest update on the battlefield. “Whatever the merits of this US policy before the Russian assault on Kharkiv Oblast began, it should be modified immediately to reflect the urgent realities of the current situation.”

Blinken ended his speech on an optimistic note.

“For decades, Putin has caused unspeakable grief for the people of Ukraine. He’s inflicted every kind of degradation and harshness,” he said. “The spirit of Ukrainians cannot be destroyed by a bomb or buried in a mass grave. It cannot be bought with a bribe or repressed with a threat. It is pure. It is unbreakable. And it is why Ukraine will succeed.”


That combination of performances contained a “danger and vulnerability,” Mylovanov suggested, that it could “blow back, and it won’t be good, neither for Ukraine nor the U.S. administration.” In the bar, at least, Blinken pulled it off.

“He played well,” 19.99 frontman Dmitry Temnyi told Reuters.

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