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What to watch for in Tucker Carlson’s Putin interview

The ex-Financial Times editor, and the last Western journalist to interview the Russian president, on ethics and propaganda.

By Lionel Barber

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on 8 February 2024 and was updated on 9 February. Tucker Carlson released his conversation with Vladimir Putin, the first one-on-one interview with western media since the full-scale war in Ukraine, and in which the Russian president said that US should “make an agreement” to cede Ukrainian territory to Russia in order to end the war.

Vladimir Putin has granted an interview to the former Fox News television host Tucker Carlson, marking the first time the Russian president has spoken to Western media since his full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Carlson teased the interview in a four-minute video posted to Twitter on 6 February, claiming, “Most Americans have no idea why Putin invaded Ukraine… You’ve never heard his voice. That’s wrong.”

Ahead of the interview being released, the New Statesman spoke with Lionel Barber, the former editor of the Financial Times and the last Western journalist to interview Putin.

Megan Gibson: What did you make of the video Tucker Carlson posted announcing the interview?

Lionel Barber: Well, he made a decent stab at suggesting that nobody had spoken to the president and therefore the coverage is somewhat one-sided. But it was what he left unsaid that was important. He did not make it clear that there are lots of journalists, all around the world, including Moscow correspondents who have applied for interviews with President Putin. Second, he should have mentioned the fact that journalists, notably the Wall Street Journal’s Moscow correspondent, Evan Gershkovich, who’s been in jail for months on trumped-up spying charges, have been imprisoned [in Russia]. Lastly, the idea that President [Volodymyr] Zelensky has been marketed, as he put it, like a consumer brand [by Western media] is frankly obscene. 

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So we have to then say: let’s see what happens in the interview. The interview that I did with my colleague, Henry Foy, who [was then] the Moscow correspondent [for the FT], was about an hour and 45 minutes. I don’t know how long Tucker Carlson’s got [with Putin], we’ll have to see what kind of questions he asks. 

MG: You and Henry Foy sat down with Putin in 2019. How did you approach the interview?

LB: First of all, it’s important to know that I had asked for this interview on about three occasions over the previous five to six years. Second, I had met Putin, along with a very small number of people, at a dinner at the Russian embassy in 2013, and I had also interviewed him on stage in front of a group of journalists at Davos in 2009. It’s also an area that I covered at the end of the Cold War. So I was approaching this with some experience in both the subject and the subject matter. Third, I had turned down other offers of an interview [with Putin], which were not acceptable [due to the conditions requested]. We would not agree to any screening of questions and insisted that there’d be no editing. After a period of back and forth, they agreed to those conditions. They agreed because there’s always a motive. Putin wanted to appear the statesman, ahead of the G20 summit in Osaka in June 2019. 

I did some serious research and talked to two or three people, including the now CIA director, Bill Burns, because he’d been the Moscow ambassador for several years and he met Putin on numerous occasions. And the most important piece of advice I got was: don’t antagonise him at the beginning, treat him with respect, because that’s what he craves because he’s got a big grievance. And that was very good advice.

MG: There’s been a lot of knee-jerk backlash since Tucker Carlson’s announcement and a lot of discussion about ethics in journalism. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with a Western journalist interviewing Putin at this moment.

LB: No, but I think the operative word is journalist. And Tucker Carlson is a commentator. And a big partisan. He’s coming at this from a very particular point of view. We know that he thinks that America should not be aiding Ukraine. And we also know that he’s a big fan of Viktor Orbán. So that’s the problem: he’s coming at this from a completely preconceived position. Now, yes, I’ve got a position where I’m broadly in favour of liberal democracy and open markets. But I think if you look at [our] whole interview, [we] try and get inside Putin’s mind.

MG: Given your experience with interviewing Putin, what should viewers be mindful of watching during their exchange?

LB: My first piece of advice is look at his face. Look at every particular gesture, every movement, because he’s constantly trying to destabilise the interviewer. He is the master of destabilisation as a psychological [tactic]. I mean, he really is adept at playing mind games. And he probably will with Carlson. He called me a “fellow historian”, for example, just because I had made historical analogies and spoke to him in German. It was just to play a mind game with me. 

But I think the broader question is: do you get a sense of the grievance that’s underlying all his positions? The idea that the West took advantage of a weak Soviet Union, that’s driving a lot of where he’s coming from and what he wants to do. Then, how much are we going to hear about the “Greater Russia”? Will we hear that Ukraine really isn’t a country at all? And that maybe there are other parts of Europe that aren’t real countries? What will he say about Nato? Is there any sense that he would enter into a peace negotiation? What is his price for peace? Or is he looking for a frozen conflict or not? 

Following our meeting, the one thing [the Kremlin] wanted to change in our interview is how Putin referred two or three times to “Donald”. They wanted that removed and changed to “President Trump”. And we refused. He won’t make that mistake with Tucker Carlson. But the degree to which he’s looking past Biden, to [a future] President Trump — that’s important too.

MG: So you think something of value could come from this interview?

LB: Oh, yeah. I’m in the camp that [thinks] it is the first interview with a Western figure since the FT‘s. Carlson is correct. Now, do you draw the analogy between a journalist going to Berlin in 1938 to interview Hitler? What are you really going to get? Hitler was also a master of propaganda. But I think it will have some value, even if it’s from Carlson turning into an apologist. Look, Elon Musk is tweeting [about] it already. This is going to be watched by a lot of people. So that’s also why it will have some value. 

I’ve done a lot of interviews with world leaders, you know, whether it’s Trump, Putin, Merkel, Obama, Chinese premiers – they all have agendas. The problem is, at what point do you risk being captured? Or just become a cypher. So for me, the main problem – there will be others – but the main problem is, we just know Carlson isn’t a real journalist. He’s an agitator with real sympathies for Putin.

[See also: Who is winning?]

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