Decoding Putin’s ‘obsessive ideas’ in the Tucker Carlson interview

In a two-hour talk, the pair covered history, politics and war. Ukrainians and Russia watchers say it was simply propaganda.

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with U.S. television host Tucker Carlson during an interview in Moscow, Russia February 6, 2024. Sputnik/Gavriil Grigorov/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with US television host Tucker Carlson during an interview in Moscow, Russia, February 6, 2024 [Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik via Reuters]

Russian President Vladimir Putin has told conservative US journalist Tucker Carlson that ending Moscow’s almost two-year-old invasion of Ukraine is “simple”.

In his first interview with a Western reporter since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began two years ago, the Kremlin handpicked Carlson, a former Fox News superstar-turned-online commentator.

The reason is obvious – Carlson has characterised the Russia-Ukraine war as a “border dispute”, called on Americans to cut off multibillion aid packages to Kyiv, and compared Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to a “rat” and a “pimp”.

During the two-hour interview recorded in a Kremlin audience hall with gilded furniture, Carlson did not pressure Putin the way he used to sandbag the pro-Democrat guests on the Fox News show he was fired from last year.

Putin’s goal appears obvious – he wanted Carlson to urge Republicans to stop supporting Ukraine and concentrate on domestic problems.

“You have issues on the border, issues with migration, issues with the national debt,” Putin told Carlson, who looked gullible and sheepish for most of their sit-down. “You have nothing better to do, so you should fight in Ukraine? Wouldn’t it be better to negotiate with Russia?”

When Carlson asked whether Putin could just call US President Joe Biden to “work it out”, Putin refused – but said the solution was “very simple”.

“If you really want to stop fighting, you need to stop supplying weapons. It will be over within a few weeks. That’s it. Then we can agree on some terms,” he said.

Carlson did not even try to refute Putin’s outlandish and ungrounded claims.

One was Putin’s belief that elected leaders do not run the United States.

“So, twice you’ve described US presidents making decisions and then being undercut by their agency heads. So, it sounds like you’re describing a system that’s not run by the people who are elected in your telling,” Carlson said.

“That’s right,” Putin said without offering further explanation – and Carlson readily agreed.

Then he asked Putin who was behind the 2022 explosion in the Baltic Sea that damaged Nord Stream, a natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany that was crucial for Moscow’s coffers.

Carlson called it “the biggest act of industrial terrorism ever”, but did not dispute Putin’s claim that it was the CIA that had allegedly blown up the pipeline – and presented no concrete evidence whatsoever.

A history lesson or tired tropes?

Putin began the interview with a lengthy lecture on Eastern Europe’s history, in which he reiterated the Kremlin’s manipulative view on Kyivan Rus, a medieval superpower whose disintegration spawned today’s Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Carlson seemed completely ignorant about the issue – and just kept nodding in bewilderment when Putin told him about a Viking prince named Ruric whose descendants ruled Kyivan Rus. One of them, Prince Vladimir, converted to Orthodox Christianity a millennium ago.

According to Putin’s logic, Russia was the only legitimate successor to Kyivan Rus, and the very idea of Ukraine was “invented” by czarist Russia’s archrival – Austria.

“Before World War I, Austrian general staff relied on the ideas of Ukrainianisation and started actively promoting the ideas of Ukraine and the Ukrainianisation,” Putin said.

To Carlson’s audience and many in the West, the lecture may seem boring and irrelevant.

But to Ukrainians, Putin’s interpretation of events is a sobering and threatening reminder that the Kremlin denies Ukraine’s very right to exist.

“Because all of these anecdotes about Prince Vladimir and Rurik have to tell all sceptics just one thing – this man has obsessive ideas,” said Maria Kucherenko, from Come Back Alive, a Kyiv-based charity.

“And he won’t stop at anything to make them real,” she told Al Jazeera.

Ukrainian officials and public figures who have met with Putin face to face have long maintained that the Russian president is determined to subjugate and annihilate Ukraine no matter what.

“He is tough and he behaves like he has this almost divine power, over Ukraine in particular,” Yuriy Vitrenko, who headed Naftogaz, Ukraine’s state energy company, at the time, told this reporter in 2021 recalling his encounters with Putin.

Putin reiterated his old claims that today’s Ukraine is an “artificial state” created by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin who annexed areas in Poland, Hungary and Romania making them part of Soviet Ukraine.

Putin also suggested that Hungary, whose nationalist helmsman Viktor Orban remains the most pro-Russian leader within the European Union, “has the right to take back its lands.”

An observer compared Putin’s intention to those of Nazi dicatator Adolf Hitler who triggered World War II by annexing areas in Eastern Europe that were populated by ethnic Germans.

“I think that the response to his Hitlerism on the part of North American and European elites will resolutely be harsh and will lead to more military aid to Ukraine,” Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s Bremen University told Al Jazeera. “Here Putin worked for Biden by trying to animate Trump’s audience.”

To other Ukrainian observers, the interview offered nothing but tired Kremlin tropes.

“The only remarkable thing in this interview is the size of the table – it’s tiny! The rest we have seen and heard a gazillion times,” Svetlana Chunikhina, vice president of the Association of Political Psychologists, a group in Kyiv, told Al Jazeera.

“Tucker goddamned Carlson served very well as a microphone stand for the crazy maniac who for two hours rambled about how he loves to kill Ukrainians.”

To a Russian observer, the interview is a Kremlin public relations stunt designed to convince average Russians that Putin’s war did not turn their nation into an international pariah spurned by the West.

“They want to show that Russia doesn’t confront the civilised world but only separate elites within it. To sort of emphasise that there are other elites, and here’s a well-known journalist interviewing [Putin],” said Sergey Biziyukin, an exiled opposition activist from the western Russian city of Ryazan.

“And that once [these elites] win elections, the West will admit that Russia is right,” he told Al Jazeera referring to Donald Trump’s possible victory in the November presidential vote and to the recent success of several nationalist and far-right groups in Europe.

The interview’s timing was critical for Ukraine.

On Wednesday, Republicans blocked a multibillion aid package that was critical for Kyiv – while Zelenskyy announced his highly divisive decision to fire Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the highly trusted and influential top general.

However, to Ukrainian servicemen, the interview is nothing but a demonstration of weakness.

“They’re two losers trying to support each other, trying to voice their conspiracy theories,” said Valentin, a Ukrainian drone operator stationed in the eastern region of Donetsk who watched parts of the interview on his cellphone.

“They can’t face the truth about Ukraine that is real and will prevail,” he told Al Jazeera by phone.

Source: Al Jazeera