Mixed reviews after Secretary of State Blinken shines in Ukraine

Was it time to be Guitar Hero? Or a tone-deaf attempt at wartime solidarity?

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken earned some mixed reviews in the Ukrainian capital on Wednesday after showing off his '80s rock skills at a scruffy but beloved Kiev bar.

Some Ukrainians applauded Tuesday night's packed performance as a show of warmth and support at a dark and terrifying moment in Ukraine's war against invading Russian forces.

For others, however, the top American diplomat's basement bar concert with local band 19.99 — which performed a heartfelt but not always tuneful version of Neil Young's “Rockin' in the Free World” — struck a discordant note.

Blinken's appearance at the basement nightspot Barman Diktat, seemingly impromptu but carefully planned, with close surveillance, came at what military analysts describe as a particularly dangerous point in the war that has been going on for more than two years.

Russian troops have carried out a major cross-border assault in the country's far northeast, and the country's second-largest city, Kharkiv, is under greater threat than since the start of the war. Thousands of Ukrainians have fled the latest fighting, and even far from the front lines, fear and anxiety are high.

Much of the social media comments reacting to Blinken's rhythm guitar riff were lighthearted in tone and focused on jokes and memes. But it also generated some expressions of dismay.

The appearance “can be described in one word: inappropriate,” Svitlana Matvienko, executive director of an NGO called the Agency for Legislative Initiatives, wrote on Facebook.

Matvienko said she was grateful for the military aid from the United States and its allies, but was “offended by this action, as a Ukrainian citizen whose loved ones are giving up everything so that we can resist.”

Others, however, saw a nod to a wartime culture of defiance that finds an outlet in the capital's club scene, a magnet throughout Europe before the Russian invasion, which now serves as a pressure valve in times dark

“I thought it was like he was a big politician and played rock music in a bar. Cool, why not?” said Mariia Lobyntseva, 27, an artist from kyiv. “Young people can't stop going out and letting off steam in bars. It is necessary for us.”

The bar in question, located in an alley off kyiv's main street, has been a popular spot for many years, although the name has changed several times.

Most nights, there's a live band on the small stage on the other side of the cavernous room. The musical offering can vary greatly: a string quartet from the National Philharmonic of Ukraine one night, a jazz ensemble another.

kyiv still maintains a wartime midnight curfew, but it's not unusual for the bar to be packed until last call, just in time for the bar staff to clean up and rush home, with nights often marked by air alerts.

More than a few commentators have pointed out that the lyrics of singer-songwriter Young's 1989 hit, “Rockin' in the Free World,” are actually a scathing commentary on the poverty and desperation plaguing wealthy Western societies.

Blinken, however, made it clear that he was leaning toward the song's famous chorus as a way to convey encouragement to a population battered by war.

“I know this is a really difficult time,” the secretary of state told the crowd at the beginning of the musical interlude, citing the suffering in the northeast of the country and elsewhere. But about the Ukrainian struggle he said: “The free world is with you.”

Some Ukrainians who were bewildered by the episode, however, perceived it as a show of goodwill, even if it was a bit clumsy.

“Many of my colleagues shared different emotions about the event, whether it was the timing or the lyrics,” said Margo Gontar, a 35-year-old blogger.

But if the band members wanted Blinken to come on stage with them, he said, “then I definitely consider this a sign of support.”

Reacting to the negative comments, some Ukrainians said outrage over Blinken's performance was misplaced.

“Yes, perhaps his attempt to demonstrate informality and soft power by playing a song in our favorite bar in central Kiev came at a bad time,” journalist and author Illia Ponomarenko wrote in X. But Blinken, he said, was “ “The last person on whom we should focus our bitterness and anger.”

Without American help, Ponomarenko wrote, “half of us would have been rotting in a pit with a bullet in our heads and with our hands behind our backs; the other half would have been seeking refuge elsewhere in the world and reading sad news about a 'Ukrainian National Government in Exile'.”

Special correspondent Ayres reported from kyiv and Times staff writer King from Washington.

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