It cannot have taken long for Tucker Carlson to grasp that his interview with Vladimir Putin might not go to plan. His first question was about the threat posed to Russia by NATO and America; President Putin’s response was a lengthy disquisition on Rurik, a Varangian chieftain of the ninth century, the medieval reign of Yaroslav the Wise and the depredations of the Mongol horde. To some on America’s right, he is an enviably ruthless pragmatist, a warrior-prince of white Christian nationalism. He came across as one of those cranks who fixate on an arcane bit of history, except that his obsession—Russia’s historical claim to Ukraine—is backed by a nuclear arsenal.
The interview, taped in the Kremlin on February 6th and released online two days later, was the first Mr Putin has given to a Westerner since the invasion of 2022. It comes at a pivotal moment in more than one way and country. A shortage of kit and munitions is hobbling Ukraine’s resistance. In America congressional Republicans have held up further support for Kyiv, mindful of the presidential election this November and Donald Trump’s candidacy in it.
A Trumpist provocateur and host on Fox News until he was sacked last year, Mr Carlson gave Mr Putin lots of chances to stir up American politics. For a supposed sorcerer of electoral interference, the president did a poor job. Might a different administration in Washington help mend relations with Russia? “It is not about the leader,” Mr Putin said disobligingly. Invited, more than once, to blame NATO for the war—a bogus explanation favoured by American isolationists—he repeatedly blathered about history. Mr Carlson looked, now and then, like a man who has drifted into a reverie over whether he left the oven on.
The president told flagrant lies. He suggested Poland (rather than the Soviet Union) collaborated with Hitler in 1939. He said he launched the invasion of 2022 to stop a war that Ukraine had started in 2014 after a CIA-backed coup. Russian forces withdrew from Kyiv as a gesture of goodwill, he fibbed. He alleged, as usual, that the Ukrainian government and its Jewish president promote Nazi ideology.
Mr Carlson, who mixed up Ukraine’s revolution of 2014 with the one a decade earlier, was unwilling or unable to challenge these falsehoods. Nor did he ask about Russian war crimes, including those of which Mr Putin personally stands accused, or the repression of domestic critics such as Alexei Navalny. (He did press for the release of Evan Gershkovich, an American journalist imprisoned in Russia on risible espionage charges.) Still, Mr Carlson came away with more than the file of letters by a 17th-century Cossack leader which, bizarrely, Mr Putin gave him.
For Mr Putin made several remarks which, out of their rambling context, will give succour to those who say backing Ukraine is not in America’s interests. In the past he hinted, darkly, that Russia might use nukes; yet he told Mr Carlson this idea was a scaremongering way for Western politicians to extort money from taxpayers. He denied any interest in invading Poland or Latvia (though he previously said the same about Ukraine). And he was asked about the hypothetical deployment of American troops to the Ukrainian front; shorn of the question, his answer is bound to be clipped and replayed. “Don’t you have anything better to do?” he scoffed, mentioning America’s border and national debt.
More people will hear that gibe than will see the whole exchange—and, in truth, it is hard to blame anyone for skipping it. Watch closely, though, and it offers valuable insights, if probably not the kind either participant intended.
One is about the risks of rulers staying in power for decades. As his comments revealed, even now Mr Putin resents the West’s role in the wars in Yugoslavia of the 1990s and other long-ago crises. In democracies, transitions of power are an amnesiac balm for such grievances, allowing relations with other countries to heal and move on. In office for almost a quarter of a century, Mr Putin is still avenging old grudges.
Another lesson lay in his sneering hauteur. He faced a hand-picked interviewer who lobbed softball questions. Even so, Mr Putin’s answers showed no regard for the patience or interests of viewers. Then again, why would they? He is not accustomed to explaining himself. He does not rule through persuasion or charm but by violence and fear.
Power in Russia is opaque. It often seems that only one man is in the know, and even he seems frequently to be flailing. Mr Carlson was granted rare access to him, and fluffed it. All the same, a vital message sounded clearly: Mr Putin is not a leader be trusted, still less to emulate or admire. ■