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There were no winners in Tucker Carlson’s Putin interview

Though he dominated the exchange, the Russian president offered little insight and no new information.

By Megan Gibson

In introducing his interview with Vladimir Putin, Tucker Carlson does us the courtesy of foreshadowing the entire exchange’s shaky relationship with the truth. Standing outside in Moscow in the gently falling snow, Carlson notes that the interview took place in the building behind him, saying it was “of course, the Kremlin”. Yet the building he gestures to is not the Kremlin; as others have noted, it is the State Historical Building.

The two-hour interview that followed, Putin’s first with Western media since he launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, was similarly deceptive. In response to Carlson’s very first question, on why Putin was worried about a Nato attack on Russia just prior to his invasion of Ukraine, the president scornfully asks, “Are we having a talk show or a serious discussion?” (Tucker’s braying laughter in response is David Brent-ishly unhinged.) 

Putin then asks for “30 seconds or one minute” to give “a little historical background” – a lie – and we’re off. What follows is nearly half an hour of the president tumbling down the rabbit hole of revanchist history, beginning in the 9th century and expanding on Russia’s historical claim to territory in Ukraine, and winding through centuries of obscure justifications for his invasion. Carlson doesn’t push back on any of this. (He notes in his introduction that he and his team weren’t pleased with the detour and “found it annoying”; during the interview itself Carlson sycophantically tells Putin the history lesson is “not boring!”.)

This historical rewriting is not new. Many of watchers of the interview, which was posted on Carlson’s website and on Twitter, surely skipped ahead to broader discussions about the present day. There they were rewarded with Putin’s thoughts on AI, the Roman empire and individual American conservative heavyweights. While Putin offers faint praise of Elon Musk (“I think there’s no stopping Elon Musk… I think he’s a smart person, I truly believe he is”), George W Bush (“I know that in the United States he was portrayed as some kind of a country boy who does not understand much. I assure you that is not the case”) and Donald Trump (“I had such a personal relationship with Trump”), he goes out of his way to needle Carlson. He refers to Carlson’s “basic education in history”. At one point, when discussing the CIA (which Putin says is responsible for sabotaging the Nord Stream pipeline), the president mentions that he knows that Carlson once applied to join the organisation and was rejected. “We should thank god they didn’t let you in,” Putin says. “Although it is a serious organisation, I understand.”

As Lionel Barber, the former editor of the Financial Times who interviewed Putin in 2019 – the last Westerner to do so before Carlson – told me ahead of the interview, Putin is “a master of destabilisation”, a skill he makes sure to wield against journalists. Was Carlson destabilised? Tough to say; Carlson, who long ago perfected his on-air expression of squinty-eyed disbelief, often appeared simply confused by Putin’s looping responses. 

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Yet what was a departure from many of the Russian president’s past interviews – and what many Kremlin watchers will be particularly interested in – was his position on the West. While previously he has made a point to decry its “decadence” and discuss its accelerating decline, here Putin was less antagonistic, more neutral. “Western society,” he says simply, “is more pragmatic” than Russian society, which he says has allowed it to “achieve good success in production, even in science, and so on”.

So how does Putin envision the war ending? An agreement with the West. “We are ready for this dialogue,” he says, claiming Russia has been ready for some time. When asked about previous attempts to negotiate a peace deal, in spring 2022, Putin blames Boris Johnson for blocking an agreement by persuading Kyiv to keep fighting. Johnson was motivated, Putin says, “because of arrogance, because of a pure heart, but not because of a great mind”. Carlson suggests that Johnson was acting at the behest of the Biden administration. Putin adds: “Where is Mr Johnson now? And the war continues.”

Putin tells Carlson the US needs to do more to end the war. It could be “over within a few weeks” if only the US were to “stop supplying weapons”. “You should tell the current Ukrainian leadership to stop and come to a negotiating table,” he says. “This endless mobilisation in Ukraine, the hysteria, the domestic problems – sooner or later, it will result in an agreement.” 

Sabre-rattling rhetoric this is not, but Putin also notes that Russia has not fulfilled all of its war aims and that an agreement should include Ukraine ceding territory to Russia. As Lawrence Freedman has written, Putin regularly makes claims to be ready for peace negotiations, “but when pushed further it transpires that his interest in diplomacy is only to help him achieve some of his core objectives, such as Ukrainian neutrality or the transfer of even more territory than currently occupied to the Russian Federation. We can take such calls more seriously when they open with a promise to withdraw from Ukrainian territory.” 

Ultimately, Vladimir Putin’s first interview with the West since the war began was neither a great moment in the annals of trenchant, inquisitive journalism, nor was it particularly enlightening. To Tucker Carlson’s credit, he did ask Putin to release the jailed Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and allow the journalist to leave the country with him. Putin declined to allow this, and as throughout the entirety of the exchange maintained control of the discussion and the narrative. And yet I’m not even sure the interview will be that effective as a propaganda tool, as many feared it would. It’s hard to see where the American right would begin in even getting a foothold in Putin’s perspective. For all the hype, most viewers would have surely tuned out at some point during Putin’s “not boring!” historical diversion. 

[See also: Lionel Barber on Tucker Carlson’s Putin interview]

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