Discussing History and Hostages with Vladimir Putin
Ten Takeaways From the Tucker Carlson Interview
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Tucker Carlson released an interview with Russian ruler Vladimir Putin on 8 February. As it ran for two hours, and was published on Twitter, probably the most annoying format for watching long videos, it seemed worthwhile to highlight ten of the key points in and around the interview. So here is this newsletter’s first “listicle”:
1) Carlson noted in the preview video he released on 6 February—the day the interview with Putin was filmed—that he had tried to arrange such an interview three years ago when he was still at Fox News. Carlson claimed in June 2021 that his communications were being monitored by the National Security Agency (NSA) for “political reasons”, and he continues those claims, saying that the Biden administration “illegally spied” on his team to scupper the interview last time around. The signal in this noise is Carlson confirming that he was in contact with Putin’s circle in 2021. Assuming that Carlson’s texts and emails were intercepted, something still not totally clear, Carlson was never a target of NSA surveillance: his communications would have intercepted incidentally because he was communicating with elements of a hostile foreign government that NSA was covering, which is what it is supposed to do.
2) There is no reason to withdraw the criticism Carlson received ahead of the interview’s publication. “We are not here because we love Vladimir Putin”, said Carlson in his preview, after devoting a quarter of his video to attacking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with talking points mirroring those used by the Kremlin. Carlson claimed in his preview video he was interviewing Putin because nobody else would, and Carlson’s defenders have taken up this line that Carlson is being attacked by journalists for “doing journalism”, as a once-funny outlet put it. This is plainly false. Many Western journalists have put in requests to interview Putin, and they were declined. Putin’s selectivity on the point would tell the story, even if it was not already known that Russia’s State media treats Carlson an extension of its messaging apparatus.
3) Carlson had clearly misunderstood Putin. In the tradition of Western political pilgrims to Russia, from the Marquis de Custine in the 1830s to Communists like Malcolm Muggeridge a century later, Carlson has projected an image onto the Russian regime that meets with his internal needs, and it has been shattered upon impact with reality. Carlson’s first question was about why Putin launched the all-out invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and Putin asked for “30 seconds” to explain the historical background, which turned into a 30-minute monologue that began with the entry of a Varangian Prince into Novgorod in 862 AD and concluded with the Bolsheviks apparently creating Ukraine and transferring Crimea to it.1
Carlson looks baffled as he sits through this and three times tries to interrupt and redirect Putin. At one point, Putin calls over a minder to present Carlson with a package of archival documents, including letters from Bohdan Khmelnytsky in the seventeenth century, that apparently demonstrate the truth of his historical narrative. Carlson tries to question the “relevance” of any of this, but Putin steamrollers him. In Carlson’s introduction to the published interview, he confesses himself “shocked” about how this turned out, having initially thought it was a “filibustering technique”, but there was no time-limit on the interview so that would make no sense. Putin was simply being “sincere”, says Carlson (see point five).
4) Putin evidently has contempt for Carlson. Within two minutes, Putin needles Carlson about whether this is a “talk show or a serious conversation”, which Carlson tries to laugh-off in a most excruciating fashion. Putin returns to this point to belittle Carlson later on. During Putin’s half-hour opening blast, when Carlson for the second time questions how it is “relevant”, Putin patronisingly treats Carlson like a disruptive schoolboy; once pacified, the lesson goes on. Later, for no obvious reason, Putin mocks Carlson for having failed to be recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Lenin referred to people like Carlson as “Useful Idiots” and Putin thinks in Soviet categories. In addition to the various direct jibes, throughout the interview Putin’s demeanour and tone ensures it is understood he views Carlson as a tool, in all senses: a servant of the Russian cause who does not fully understand what he is doing, a man unworthy of respect.
5) Putin’s opening monologue, the most important part of the “interview”, makes clear (yet again) that Putin is motivated by a religious and nationalist—the two concepts indivisible in his mind—understanding of history in his war on Ukraine. In Carlson’s first question, which triggers the monologue, Carlson tries to feed Putin the “NATO provocation” explanation of the war, and Carlson tries again by reading out sections of Putin’s speech declaring war on Ukraine that mention NATO. Putin is having none of it. Reiterating many of the points laid out in his July 2021 essay, the Russian ruler doubles and triples down in trying to get across to Carlson that his policy is one of ideological imperialism: Putin does not believe Ukraine is a real country and he attacked it to take Ukrainian territory because he believes that land belongs to Russia.
People on either side of the Russian-Ukrainian border are “brothers in faith, in fact a part of the Russian people”, Putin explains.2 What is happening is more like a “civil war”, he goes on, and they will overcome this turmoil: Russians “will be reunited”. The very last thing Putin says, after criticising the Zelensky government for its moves against the branch of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine that is—like the Russian branch—controlled by Putin’s secret police, is that this has nothing to do with security: Kyiv has attacked this institution because it “brings together not only the [Russian] territory; it brings together our souls. No one will be able to separate the soul.”
The more surprising thing is that Putin’s motivations remain a point of contention. For years before the 2022 full-scale invasion, visitors to Moscow were “subjected to a rather lengthy lecture” from Putin about Russia’s aspirations “and what is rightly theirs”, as Australia’s former Prime Minister Scott Morrison put it. Other Western leaders have said the same. That none of them listened before 2022 is a world historical disaster; it is even less forgivable not to listen now.
6) The interview shows the limitations of Russia’s Sovietized leadership in understanding of the West. Putin’s mission—and Carlson’s, come to that—was to create the impression that Russia’s case was reasonable and Putin has been misrepresented as a monster and a madman. Instead of scripted talking points along these lines to appeal to Russia-friendly “post-liberal” and Leftist elements in the West, however, Putin chose to be himself, responding to a question about why he started a war with a lecture beginning in the ninth century. Most normies will find this demented. Moreover, Putin is not a dazzling speaker; many are going to get bored and switch off before ever getting to the end of this interview. And those who do stick it out are going to be profoundly confused by large swathes of the content, which is profoundly conspiratorial. Speaking of which:
7) On clear display was where the conspiratorial worldview the Cheka/KGB does have purchase in the West: on the Bolshevized Right, among the so-called “populists” like Carlson, who have wrestled the “Blame America First” baton away from the 1970s-era Leftists.
Putin’s lachrymose rendition of Western misdeeds against Russia after the Cold War was familiar enough: NATO “expansion”, support for Caucasian terrorists, the creation of missile defence system in Europe, and “dragging Ukraine into NATO”—a unified “policy of pressure”, so Putin tells it.
Putin takes a minor detour to the breakup of Jugoslavija in the early 1990s. The idea Russia had to support the victimised Serbs and that U.S. intervention in Bosnia and especially Kosovo abrogated “international law”—an implicit tu quoque justification for the war on Ukraine—are standard fare. Somewhat more unusual was the public defence of Russia’s then-president Boris Yeltsin as a man who knew what was going on. Putin recast Yeltsin’s legendarily severe alcoholism as a story fabricated by the West in retaliation for Yeltsin’s defence of the brother Serbs.
Putin then gets into his stride, claiming that the U.S. and its “satellites” gave propaganda support, as well as financial and military aid, to “separatists and terrorists” in the Caucasus.3 Putin says he showed the evidence to President George W. Bush and Bush was unhappy about it and vowed to stop it. When months went by with nothing happening, Putin directed the FSB to write to the CIA. The CIA apparently admitted the U.S. was supporting these “opposition” elements and said it would continue to do so because this was the right thing to do.
Putin next claims that Bush agreed in a meeting to accommodate Russia’s concerns over the planned missile defence shield to be placed in Europe to protect the Continent from Iran, but this agreement was undone by Secretary of State Robert Gates, whom Putin notes is a former head of the CIA.
The vein in which Putin seems to be giving this litany of grievances is the slightly schizophrenic approach the Russian leadership has had towards the West since before Soviet times that might be summarised as: “We hate the you and we are superior to you, but please recognise us and treat us as equal.” In this case, Carlson seizes on Putin’s lament to feed him a “Deep State” version of events, where Presidents agree to things and U.S. State agencies undermine them, and Putin rolls with it. After some discussion of who really runs America—no firm answers: it is all very confusing, apparently—Putin repays Carlson by giving voice to his worries about the integrity of American elections, and expresses his displeasure at any attempt to disqualify candidates, clearly meaning Donald Trump. The synthesis of Chekist and MAGA World conspiracy theories is not the most edifying spectacle.
8) Putin has no intention of negotiating over Ukraine. Putin at one point flatly says: “What is there to talk about?” Putin wants the U.S./NATO to stop supplying weapons to Ukraine, and only then would there be “negotiations”. In other words, Russia’s conquest of Ukraine is the only outcome Putin will accept.
Putin dates the beginning of the war to 2014 (which is correct), specifically to the “coup” in Kyiv (which is not correct). Russia had to defend Crimea after this putsch, in Putin’s telling, and once the new regime was repelled on the Peninsula, “they launched” the war in Donbas by indiscriminately attacking civilians. “It was they who started the war in 2014”, Putin insists. “Our goal is to stop this war. We did not start this war in 2022. This is an attempt to stop it.”
The most flagrant lie Putin tells in the interview is that he withdrew Russian troops from Kyiv to allow for negotiations in Istanbul shortly after the 2022 invasion began, but Ukraine and the West took advantage of his good-natured gesture to flood the country with weapons and initiate a long war. For some reason, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson—acting on instructions from U.S. President Joe Biden—is given specific blame by Putin for terminating the Istanbul negotiations.
The truth, obviously, is that Putin tried to decapitate the Ukrainian government in February 2022, with the intention of occupying Ukraine using a mix of Russian troops and the rump of the Ukrainian military and other State institutions. This plan was narrowly defeated by the Ukrainians, who subsequently liberated the rest of the territory around the capital from a murderous Russian occupation, delivering the most important strategic defeat of the war to Russia.
Putin is hardly subtle about his maximalist war aims remaining in place. Putin’s framing of his ostensible openness to peace talks is that the West needs to find a way to climb down from its no-negotiations position so it can accept his terms. The point is similarly made by Putin’s exegesis on one of his favourite propaganda points, the requirement for “denazification” in Ukraine—said with a straight face by the man who sent neo-Nazi death squads to murder Ukraine’s Jewish President.
Putin and Carlson do some more bonding in this segment over their shared conspiracy theories: Western leaders using a fabricated threat about Russia’s territorial ambitions beyond Ukraine to “extort” money from their populations, NATO keeping this war going to weaken Russia, the U.S. bombing the Nord Stream pipeline, and Zelensky being a puppet of the Americans.
9) The biggest lie Putin tells is about the origins of the Second World War. “Poland cooperated with Hitler”, Putin claims: “Hitler offered Poland peace” if they would just surrender the Danzig corridor so Germans could access East Prussia and Königsberg. “Hitler asked them to give it [up] amicably but they refused”, says Putin, at which point Carlson weirdly interjects, “Of course”. While Putin savages Poland for “collaborating” with Nazi Germany to dismantle Czechoslovakia, Putin says the Soviets “behaved very honestly”.
The suppression of the fact that the Soviets started the Second World War in collaboration with the Nazis was a pillar of official ideology in the Soviet Union and remains so in Putin’s Russia. With Putin, this extends to the end of the war, too. Putin makes reference to the territory Poland received from Germany “apparently in compensation” in 1945, skipping over this being a decision of the Soviet Revolution that occupied both areas, stole a huge chunk of Poland, and then redrew the borders to give Poland a piece of Germany that the Red Army “ethnically cleansed” of Germans.
10) Putin is angling to trade Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter he took hostage a year ago, for a Russian spy imprisoned in the West. One of the main criticisms of Carlson leading into this was that his absurd claim nobody else did journalism in Russia was belied by the number of Russian journalists killed and Western journalists taken hostage for trying. Right now, Putin holds two American journalists: Gershkovich and Alsu Kurmasheva. Seeking to deflect this criticism, 110 minutes in, Carlson’s penultimate question was whether he could take Gershkovich home with him. Carlson did not mention Kurmasheva, though, credit him this far, Carlson did say Gershkovich was being “held hostage”. Putin obviously refused, claiming Gershkovich had sought “secret information” in a “conspiratorial manner”, and this was espionage. Gershkovich “was working for the U.S. special services”, Putin boldly stated.
What Putin went on to do was make reference (without naming him) to Vadim Krasikov, who “due to patriotic sentiment”, “eliminated a bandit” (Chechen rebel Zelimkhan Khangoshvili) in “a European capital” (Berlin, in August 2019). Unable to help himself, Putin added: “Whether he [i.e., Krasikov] did it of his own volition or not, that is a different question”, as good as an admission that Putin ordered the assassination. Offering to trade Gershkovich for Krasikov, Putin said: “It does not make any sense to keep him in prison in Russia. … We are ready to talk. … But we have to come to an agreement.” According to Putin, the FSB is already talking with Western “special services” about this. Putin’s final word on this was effectively a threat not to make this a bigger public and political issue: “The more public we render things of this nature, the more difficult it becomes to resolve them”.
There are a couple little bits and pieces that deserve “honourable mentions”. There has long been suspicion that Putin promised to give pieces of conquered Ukraine to Hungary’s ruler, Viktor Orban. Putin adds to this suspicion by “formally” denying it, while maintaining that Transcarpathia is populated by Magyars and belongs to Hungary. Though Putin omitted mention of Russia’s firm alliance with Clerical Iran, he did warmly mention the third partner in this Axis: Red China. “China’s foreign policy philosophy is not aggressive”, said Putin. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “always looks for compromise”.
For all of Putin’s bitterness against the Bolsheviks for supposedly inventing Ukraine, the nearest he gets to a criticism of the Soviet system is saying: “many claim [the Stalin era] saw numerous violations of human rights and violations of the rights of other States”. Putin famously said he considered the demise of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century and in that spirit at one point in the interview he remarks that he remains unsure why the Soviet leadership needlessly initiated the process that led to the collapse of the Empire.
About 100 minutes in, Carlson asks Putin essentially about his personal faith, phrasing it as asking Putin how he handles his role as a “Christian leader”. After a little detour back to Prince Vladimir the Great’s baptism in 988 and the Christianisation of the pagan Rus, Putin says Russia’s great strength was always that it accommodated the faiths of conquered peoples (he specifies Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists). All became part of “one big family”, says Putin, part of the Motherland. Carlson tries to veer this into a question about how Putin reconciles Christianity being a “non-violent” religion with the fact leaders have to kill to protect the State. Carlson notably does not mention Ukraine in this context, but Putin does. Putin says these things are easily reconcilable: a Christian ruler has to avoid attacking others, and Russia has done this, since the Ukraine war started in 2014 with “the coup d’état” in Kyiv. Putin then says that all of this is somewhat irrelevant, as the real place for faith is “in the heart” and—stacking up the clichés—invokes Dostoyevsky to claim that the “Russian soul” has always been more focused on morality and the “eternal”, while Westerners are “more pragmatic”.