Tucker Comes in From the Cold

Still from Carlson’s Putin interview.

If Tucker Carlson had spent any longer hawking his ratings outside Vladimir Putin’s Great Hall of Illusion and Kremlin Imaginarium, he might have had to register as a foreign agent on his return to the United States of Cable.

As it was, Tucker queued up for a two-hour Red Square advertorial on Putin’s airing of Soviet grievances—all those instances in Russian history when Moscovy had to endure the perfidy of Congress Poland or the West failed to recognize Stalin’s noble intentions.

In many ways, Carlson’s X broadcast wasn’t so much a political interview as it was a deposition in an ugly divorce proceeding in which one spouse (Putin) gives endless, rambling answers to mansplain why the relationship (with the West) failed and why Vlad had no choice but to invade Ukraine (or seek the solace of women who were not his wife). It was all background to justify why, in the settlement, he deserves the Porsche and Kiev.

In Putin’s world view (mind you, he’s only comfortable in the contours of the old Soviet Union, or perhaps in his 17,691 square meter dacha on the Black Sea coast), he and Russia—they are indivisible—are aggrieved victims of never-ending Western aggression, which in Putin’s mind justifies everything from poisoning his political rivals to the invasion of Crimea.

Live from the Kremlin

During the two-hour Kremlin interview, Carlson’s demeanor was that of a Boy Scout out to earn a Fox merit badge for helping a doddering Comintern apparachnik across a busy Moscow boulevard. He smiled and laughed, listened attentively, groveled when necessary, and never interrupted Tsar Vladimir, lest he incur his majesty’s wrath.

On the subject of Russian history, Tucker knows little or nothing, so all he could do when Putin droned on about the Zemsky Sobor or the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was look like a dazed college sophomore during a pop quiz on Tolstoy’s theory of social reform.

Putin’s manner in the interview was that of an insufferable finger-wagging professor who hates to be corrected even though he hasn’t revised his lecture notes since 1973. His body language expressed pure contempt for Carlson, who Putin seemed to regard as a supplicant begging alms from the tsar’s carriage.

After the jam session, back in his hotel, Carlson said in a selfie post: “He [Putin] is not good at explaining himself. … But he’s clearly spending a lot of time in a world where he doesn’t have to explain himself.”

Go West, Old Man

To be fair to Carlson, by allowing Putin an open mic, he did get on the record in front a Western audience important insights into Putin’s strategic thinking, which the non-Trump West would do well to digest.

As I doubt many Carlson viewers took in anything more than a few highlights of the interview, I thought it would be useful to excerpt some of Putin’s salient points, so you can judge their meaning for yourself.

—In denying the existence of Ukrainian nationality (“an artificial state”), Putin makes it clear that he resents Polish and Austrian influence in the borderlands, even though the Austrians haven’t occupied Galicia in more than a hundred years and the last change to Poland’s borders was in 1945:

But for decades, the Poles have been engaged in the Polonization of this part of the population: they introduced their language there, they began to introduce the idea that these are not entirely Russians, that since they live on the edge, they are Ukrainians. Initially, the word Ukrainian” meant that a person lives on the outskirts of the state, at the edge,” or is engaged in border service, in fact. It did not mean any particular ethnic group….

Under the rule of Catherine the Great, Russia reclaimed all of its historical lands, including in the south and west. This all lasted until the Revolution. Before World War I, Austrian General Staff relied on the ideas of Ukrainianization and started actively promoting the ideas of Ukraine and the Ukrainianization.

What Putin omits is that Catherine herself seized Crimea from the Ottoman Empire, and that Stalin dealt with these new Soviet men by deporting and liquidating the Tatar (largely Turkish) population. (If you want to restore Crimea to its rightful owners, give it to the Greeks or the Khanate.)

—Putin blames Poland for starting World War II and collaborating with Hitler:

In 1939, after Poland cooperated with Hitler — it did collaborate with Hitler, you know — Hitler offered Poland peace and a treaty of friendship and alliance — we have all the relevant documents in the archives, demanding in return that Poland give back to Germany the so-called Danzig Corridor, which connected the bulk of Germany with East Prussia and Konigsberg. After World War I this territory was transferred to Poland, and instead of Danzig, a city of Gdansk emerged. Hitler asked them to give it amicably, but they refused. Still they collaborated with Hitler and engaged together in the partitioning of Czechoslovakia.

From this passage you might have thought it was Poland, not the Soviet Union, that signed a Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, as a prelude to the partition of Poland between Hitler and Stalin. Nevertheless, Putin exonerates Stalin of any duplicity:

By the way, the USSR — I have read some archive documents — behaved very honestly. It asked Polands permission to transit its troops through the Polish territory to help Czechoslovakia. But the then Polish foreign minister said that if the Soviet planes flew over Poland, they would be downed over the territory of Poland. But that doesnt matter. What matters is that the war began, and Poland fell prey to the policies it had pursued against Czechoslovakia, as under the well-known Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, part of that territory, including western Ukraine, was to be given to Russia. Thus Russia, which was then named the USSR, regained its historical lands.

Clearly to Putin, Russian “historical lands” might well be anything Alexander I traversed on his triumphant 1813–14 ride from Leipzig to Paris.

—Throughout the two-hour monologue, Putin compliments himself for his encyclopedic knowledge of Russian history, even though in the following passage he confuses the date (by thirty years) when Crimea became part of Ukraine:

Stalin insisted that those republics be included in the USSR as autonomous entities. For some inexplicable reason, Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, insisted that they be entitled to withdraw from the USSR. And, again for some unknown reasons, he transferred to that newly established Soviet Republic of Ukraine some of the lands together with people living there, even though those lands had never been called Ukraine; and yet they were made part of that Soviet Republic of Ukraine. Those lands included the Black Sea region, which was received under Catherine the Great and which had no historical connection with Ukraine whatsoever.

Only in 1954, after Stalin’s death, did Nikita Khrushchev assign Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and Lenin died in 1924.

—In nursing his endless, self-pitying grievances against the West, Putin implies over and over that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West failed to embrace the successor nations, notably Russia, as equal partners in the family of nations:

Now we wont say who is afraid of whom, lets not talk in such categories. Lets talk about the fact that after 1991, when Russia expected to be taken into the fraternal family of civilized peoples,” nothing like that happened. You deceived us — when I say you,” I dont mean you personally, of course, but the United States — you promised that there would be no NATO expansion to the east, but this happened five times, five waves of expansion. We endured everything, persuaded everything, said: no need, we are now our own, as they say, bourgeois, we have a market economy, there is no power of the Communist Party, let’s come to an agreement.

Some of this Putin criticism is justified. At the same time, it overlooks that in the 1990s, newly-independent Russia bankrupted its currency, defaulted on its sovereign debt, waged something close to a civil war (with tanks firing shells into the Duma), devolved the economy into the hands of an oligarchy, and conducted elections as if they were a drug war. Then in the 2000s Putin began liquidating his rivals, sometimes with poison in London tearooms.

—Putin blames the West for inciting terrorism and separatism in the North Caucasus:

I repeatedly raised the issue that the United States should not support separatism or terrorism in the North Caucasus. But they continued to do it anyway. And political support, information support, financial support, even military support came from the United States and its satellites for terrorist groups in the Caucasus.

I assume that this is an allusion to American support for Georgia, although it might well be alleging direct U.S. support for separatists in Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Chechnya, for which there is little or no evidence, outside of the John le Carré novel Our Game. After 2001 Russia and the U.S. supported each other’s “war on terrorism” especially in the Caucasus.

—According to Putin’s interpretation of history, the West (notably the United States and NATO) overthrew Russian-friendly governments in Ukraine and later supplied military aid that Ukraine used to attack Russia:

So, in 2008 the doors of NATO were opened for Ukraine. In 2014, there was a coup, they started persecuting those who did not accept the coup, and it was indeed a coup, they created a threat to Crimea which we had to take under our protection. They launched a war in Donbass in 2014 with the use of aircraft and artillery against civilians. This is when it started. There is a video of aircraft attacking Donetsk from above. They launched a large-scale military operation, then another one. When they failed, they started to prepare the next one. All this against the background of military development of this territory and opening of NATOs doors.

The statement spoke to Carlson’s worldview, that Democrats are to blame for all wars, although the 2008 expression of support for Ukraine and Georgia to someday join NATO (pushed by Republican President George W. Bush) never went anywhere. In particular, Germany and France opposed such expansion, and it was dropped, but to Putin, a memorandum of understanding that died in 2008 was the reason he had to attack Ukraine in 2022, assuming he wasn’t still nursing the wounds of Tilsit (1807).

—Putin invokes the specter of neo-Nazis as another justification for his Ukraine invasion:

That is what I want to talk about right now. It is a very important issue. De-nazification. After gaining independence, Ukraine began to search, as some Western analysts say, its identity. And it came up with nothing better than to build this identity upon some false heroes who collaborated with Hitler….

I say that Ukrainians are part of the one Russian people. They say, “No, we are a separate people.” Okay, fine. If they consider themselves a separate people, they have the right to do so, but not on the basis of Nazism, the Nazi ideology….

All this put together led to the decision to end the war that neo-Nazis started in Ukraine in 2014.

In my own travels around Ukraine, I have seen little evidence of Nuremberg-like rallies underpinning the government, but I have no doubt that like many countries in Europe, Ukraine has far right-wing nationalist parties.

Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Poland—to name but a few—all have them. But in these passages Putin isn’t merely equating the Zelensky government with Ukrainian collaborators who in 1941 welcomed the German invasion of the Soviet Union; he is drawing a larger point that NATO, the United States, and the European Union are little more than the reincarnation of the Third Reich just biding their time until they can launch a blitzkrieg into Russia.

A Little Something for the Effort

Because the interview was destined for YouTube and X, it did not run to a strict schedule and only ended when Putin ran out of historical grievances.

With time winding down, Carlson tried to get Putin to hand over the imprisoned Wall Street Journal reporter, Evan Gershkovich, “as a sign of your decency.” Putin responded: “We have done so many gestures of goodwill out of decency that I think we have run out of them.”

Had this been a Hollywood sitcom, presumably a laugh track would have been laid down over the words “so many gestures,” but as it was agitation propaganda all the viewers got was Carlson’s Eagle Scout expression and Putin’s off-with-their heads sly cynical smile.

Harder to compute is what accounts for Putin’s surging popularity within the cultish Republican Party, which for a long time thought the Russians represented “Godless terrorism” and bet everything on rolling back the Iron Curtain. Now country club Republicans seem to be humming “The Internationale”, and even the hawkish Senator Lindsey Graham would consign Zelensky’s government to the dustin of history.

Soviet Revanchism

Be assured that Putin’s territorial claims and ambitions go far beyond the Donbas and Crimea. Left to his own devices, Putin would occupy not just Ukraine, but Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Moldova, and Slovakia—if not the Czech Republic and Finland.

His best chance to recapture these lost tsarist lands would come during a second Trump collaborationist regime, which may explain why Putin agreed to an interview with Donald’s fellow traveler, Tucker Carlson. Was it to make it clear to everyone what the Putin mafia will claim if its bots secure a Trump restoration? (By the way, Donnie still hasn’t delivered on Ukraine for 2016.)

Putin wasn’t sitting down with Carlson’s audience so that it would be better informed on the accomplishments of Peter the Great or understand the betrayals in the Treaty of San Stefano (1878); he spoke only as a loan shark might speak to his custo (Trump), to make it clear how much any re-election will cost in terms of Eastern European annexations.

For his part, Trump signaled back to Putin that he “got” the message about the expected juice, saying a few days later in South Carolina of the NATO allies:

I came in, I made a speech, and I said, ‘You got to pay out.’ They asked me that question. One of the presidents of a big country stood up, said, ‘Well, sir, if we dont pay and were attacked by Russia, will you protect us?’ I said, ‘You didnt pay. Youre delinquent?’ He said, ‘Yes, lets say that happened.’ ‘No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You got to pay. You got to pay your bills.’

As they say in The Godfather, “It’s not personal… it’s strictly business,” unless, of course, if you owe E. Jean Carroll $83 million.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.