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Tucker Carlson’s two-hour interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin proved to be a storm in a teacup. The Russian leader used the conversation with the former Fox News host to repeat his well-known empty phrases, and yet again justify his decision to invade Ukraine. But why did the controversial American TV shock jock give Putin an outlet for his propaganda points?
Among the Russian President’s rambling and fact-free talking points was the extraordinary allegation that former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sabotaged a potential peace deal discussed in Istanbul in the early stages of the latest invasion.
Ever since Carlson arrived in Moscow on 1 February, and was spotted attending the Bolshoi Theater in the capital, Russian media have started hailing the American conservative pundit as a celebrity. Carlson was on the front page of Evening Moscow, the newspaper handed out for free to commuters every day on the Moscow Metro, while Russian pro-Kremlin media and Telegram channels reportedly mentioned the US journalist approximately 2,050 times over the past week.
All that, as well as Putin’s decision to speak with Carlson, clearly shows that many Russians – including the ruling elite – still have an inferiority complex in regard to the West. Although pro-Kremlin propaganda will almost certainly attempt to portray “the biggest interview of 2024” as Putin’s “brilliant victory over the West”, in reality, his reliance on endorsement by a US TV shock jock represents a serious weakness.
That, however, is unlikely to have an impact on the outcome of the upcoming Russian presidential election, scheduled for March 15-17. As Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in August 2023, the Russian presidential poll “is not really democracy, it is costly bureaucracy”, which means that the interview was broadcast mainly for the Western audience. But how effective was this kind of propaganda?
While Tucker Carlson undoubtedly has a serious influence on conservative Americans, his interview with Putin will not force the United States’ policy makers to change their approach regarding Russia, at least as long as Joe Biden is in office. But even if Donald Trump wins the election in November, that does not necessarily mean that Washington will fundamentally change its geopolitical course and stop supporting Ukraine, which is what many in the Kremlin reportedly hope for.
Thus, Carlson yet again echoed Moscow’s ambitions, without posing any challenging questions to Putin. He allowed the Russian leader to spend almost half an hour talking about Russian history, and about the history of Russian-Ukrainian relations. Putin essentially repeated what he wrote in his 2021 article ”On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians“, claiming that significant parts of modern Ukraine are “historic Russian lands”.
But when asked why he did not invade “historic Russian lands” when he came to power more than 20 years ago, Putin started talking about the history of the Soviet Union, and blamed his predecessor Boris Yeltsin for the collapse of the USSR. He then once again admitted that he wanted Russia to join NATO in 1999 and 2000, but the former US President Bill Clinton reportedly told him that “it was not possible”. Thus, from Putin’s perspective, Russia has the right to join NATO, but if Ukraine seeks to become a member of the US-dominated alliance, it represents a “threat for the Russian national security”.
For Putin, Ukrainian national identity is also quite “problematic”, which is why he still aims to “de-Nazify” the country. Although Carlson did not bring the heat to the Russian leader, he did ask some very specific and practical questions that Putin refused to directly answer. Instead, he used his old mantras of his Western partners “deceiving him” and “leading him by the nose”.
It was a rhetoric for his domestic audience, as Putin seems to enjoy playing the role of a naïve charlatan who constantly “gets fooled” by his Western and Ukrainian partners. Since everything about Putin is a publicity stunt, he is likely deliberately portraying himself as a “good but naïve” leader, given that significant parts of the Russian audience still buy such a narrative.
Putin also blamed the former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson for “sabotaging” the 2022 negotiations between Ukraine and Russia in Istanbul to end the war in its early stages. But according to Putin’s ally Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian and Ukrainian negotiators in Istanbul sought to agree on the “lease” of Crimea, while Oleksiy Arestovych, the former advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said that, from Kyiv’s perspective, the negotiations were so successful that the Ukrainian delegation “opened the champagne bottle”.
Could it be that Boris Johnson actually prevented Russia from signing a de facto capitulation in Istanbul?
For Putin, however, it is Western leaders, rather than he himself, who are responsible for the war continuing. He also blames them for the Euromaidan of 2014, which resulted in the overthrow of allegedly pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Putin told Tucker that the “CIA orchestrated a coup d’etat in Kyiv”. He, however, refused to mention his role in that process, and how he, at the request of the United States, effectively betrayed Yanukovych, pressuring him not to use force against Western-backed protesters.
Tucker Carlson, on the other hand, seems to know very little about those events, or about Russian-Ukrainian relations in general. Still, he gave Putin a chance to reach a potentially sympathetic audience in the United States.
“You have issues on your border, issues with migration, issues with national debt at $33 trillion. You have nothing better to do than fight in Ukraine?”, Putin said during the interview.
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It was a message to Donald Trump supporters and American isolationists, as certain factions within the Russian elite hope that, if such a political option comes to power in the United States, Washington will stop funding Ukraine and allow Putin to achieve his goals in the Eastern European country. That is why the interview might have been mutually beneficial for both Putin and Carlson.
Dozens of journalists are currently imprisoned in Russia for their work, and they are unlikely to be released anytime soon. Putin, however, hinted that he might free Evan Gershkovich, a 32-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter who has been jailed for almost a year on espionage charges. But if he releases the American citizen Gershkovich as a “goodwill gesture”, without swapping him for any Russian spies being imprisoned in the West, he will yet again demonstrate a serious weakness that his propaganda will portray as another “geopolitical victory”.
Although many Western news outlets had requested to interview Putin, the Kremlin chose Tucker Carlson because his position, according to Peskov, “contrasts with that of the traditional Anglo-Saxon media”. It is not a secret that Putin, who does not seem capable of answering unpleasant questions, avoids debating not only with most Western reporters, but also with Russian journalists who do not agree with the official Kremlin narrative.
One thing is for sure – what Putin avoids to mention in his bureaucrat-style interviews is always more important than what he emphasizes. That is why he will remain the king of empty rhetoric, and rather boring speeches.