Last Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called me from the train on his way out of Kyiv, where he had made an unannounced visit to declare a new U.S. aid package. Blinken was 15 minutes outside the city where his grandfather, Maurice, had been born. The Secretary was on his way to Poland (pretty much the only way in and out of Ukraine these days) and then on to New Delhi for the annual G20 Conference. That meeting would result in a joint statement that infuriated Ukraine: last year’s communication condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; this year, the language simply referred to “the war in Ukraine.” The G20 called for a “just peace” in Ukraine and condemned the “adverse impact of wars and conflicts around the world.” The Biden administration and E.U. tried to spin it as a win—they got Russia and China to sign on to the same statement!—but the Ukrainian delegation was furious. The statement, they said, was “nothing to be proud of.”
When we spoke, Blinken was his usual highly polished, extremely disciplined self. He rarely veers off script in public, or with the press, and sticks religiously to his office’s talking points. It can be a little frustrating for journalists, especially those of us who have been able to speak with him in private. It’s not that Blinken is a different person on the record; it’s more that he is utterly committed to saying nothing controversial.
Still, when we spoke, the train wheels thumping rhythmically in the background, I was struck by the fact that there was clearly one thing that Blinken wanted to get across to me, even if I didn’t ask him about it: He wanted to speak about the suffering and the trauma that he saw in Ukraine, specifically in a school in the small town of Yahidne, which he felt encapsulated the war far more than the aid package and security agreements he had discussed with President Zelensky. That was the talking point he was most interested in hammering. And he was quite emotional about it.