Putin sat down with Tucker Carlson and lectured him on the Ukraine war
When Tucker Carlson sat down with Russian President Vladimir Putin for a more than two-hour-long interview at the Kremlin this week, both men had something to gain from the rare and highly publicized exchange.
For Russia’s president, who is mired in a war, it was a chance to speak at length and deliver a “world according to Putin” narrative to a Western audience.
For Carlson, who is trying to rebuild his personal brand after being ousted from Fox News last year, it was a high-profile get and a chance to steer the Russian leader toward some of his own talking points, which resonate with his mostly conservative viewers.
In the interview, which aired early this morning in Russia and was posted on X, there was talk of U.S. government cover-ups and what it’s like to be a Christian and a world leader who is sometimes required to use deadly force. But what Putin really wanted to talk about was Ukraine — why he thinks Russia is entitled to the territory and why his country shouldn’t be blamed for launching the war.
Carlson didn’t press Putin on the fact that he is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Ukraine or that he has tried to silence his domestic critics by imprisoning them or threatening to do so.
“It doesn’t really look like an interview. It’s more like a lecture to a freshman,” said Sergei Sanovich, a fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University in California, where part of his research focuses on disinformation and censorship. “[Putin] is a skilled propagandist.”
A rare opportunity
The interview comes nearly two years into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as the Kremlin seeks to capitalize on Washington’s wavering military support and Ukraine’s need to reset and regroup on the battlefield.
It also comes a month before the Russian election, where Putin is destined to be voted in, but still wants to remind the public of his oft-repeated claim — that is he defending Russia’s interest against Ukraine and the West.
And it comes nine months before the U.S. presidential election, where Donald Trump is the front-runner for the Republican nomination. Trump has criticized the tens of billions of dollars the U.S. is spending on the Ukraine war and boasted during a CNN town hall last spring that if he were president, he would “have that war settled” in 24 hours.
When Carlson asked if he would have a better relationship with the U.S. president if there was a “new administration after Joe Biden,” Putin didn’t directly answer, but said he had good personal relationships with both George W. Bush and Trump.
Sanovich said Carlson’s “motivation is clear.”
“It is clear preparation for what I am sure [Carlson] looks forward to… Trump’s [presidential] bid succeeding, and him returning to the White House.”
The Kremlin said Carlson was given the opportunity to be the first U.S. journalist to interview Putin since the beginning of the Ukraine war because his reports weren’t “one-sided,” like many other Western reporters whose interview requests have been denied.
After the interview was posted online on Friday, Putin’s spokesperson said Carlson didn’t clear questions with the Kremlin ahead of time, and that it was important for as many people as possible in the West to watch the exchange.
Tucker’s track record at Fox
Throughout his time hosting his popular yet controversial evening show on Fox, Carlson expressed sympathy with Russia, accusing the Biden administration of “effectively encouraging” Russia’s invasion and then prolonging it by supplying Ukraine with weapons and ammunition.
For years, Carlson has criticized U.S. foreign policy, which he said had cast Putin as the “bogeyman,” and once mused, “Why shouldn’t I root for Russia? Which I am.”
Carlson’s critics accuse him of trumpeting conspiracy theories and promoting far-right ideas, including about the COVID-19 vaccines and immigration.
Carlson, who was let go from Fox just days after the cable network reached a $787.5-million US settlement for defamation with Dominion Voting Systems, now produces his own broadcasts, which airs on his website and also sometimes on X.
In the U.S., Carlson tries to present himself as a maverick who looks out for middle-class Americans. In Russia, state media has heralded him as a truth-teller.
On Friday, state media outlet RIA Novosti said “no event in the media sphere around the world has been” met with such anticipation as Carlson’s Putin interview, which they also dubbed a “weapon of mass education.”
Throughout the week, Carlson’s moves around Moscow were posted all over social media. Clips surfaced showing him at the famed Bolshoi Theatre and sampling the culinary fare at Vkusno i Tochka, Russia’s rebranded version of McDonald’s, which pulled out of the country after the start of the Ukraine invasion.
A platform for Putin
During the interview, there were smiles and jokes. When Putin launched into a 30-minute explanation of how he believes history justifies Ukraine becoming part of Russia, Carlson looked unsure of how to get another question in, which he eventually did by focusing on NATO, Nazism, the threat of global war and U.S. relations with Russia.
“The whole interview was one-way traffic… [Carlson] giving Putin a theme and allowing Putin to talk on the topic,” said Ian Garner, an assistant professor of the department of political studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
Garner, whose research focuses on Russian culture and the propaganda of war, said Carlson didn’t challenge Putin with follow-up questions.
For example, he didn’t interject when Putin claimed that Ukraine’s military started attacking the Donbas region in 2014, thus creating a threat that required Russia to take Crimea under its “protection.”
Garner said the only time Carlson really pressed the Russian leader was when he implored him to free Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter who has been imprisoned in Russia for nearly a year on espionage charges. Putin said that a prisoner swap might be possible and suggested that Moscow wanted Germany to free Vadim Krasikov, who was convicted of the 2019 murder of a Chechen dissident in Berlin.
When Carlson asked Putin who was responsible for blowing up the Nord Stream gas pipeline in September 2022, Putin hinted that the U.S. likely played a role. When Carlson asked him why Russia wouldn’t release its evidence of that publicly, Putin replied that it would be futile, as the U.S. controls the global media.
Carlson essentially agreed that the U.S. was to blame when he remarked, “the Germans clearly know that their NATO partner did this.”
Garner believes Carlson opened the door to one of his own favourite talking points, the deep state — a conspiracy theory based on the idea that unelected officials are controlling the actions of the U.S. government.
At one point, Putin claimed he had had promising conversations with previous U.S. presidents about greater co-operation, but that the ideas were sidelined by other state officials.
“It sounds like you are describing a system that’s not run by the people who are elected,” Carlson said.
Putin urged the U.S. to stop supplying weapons to Ukraine, saying that if the support was halted, the war would be over in a matter of weeks.
When Carlson asked him about further U.S. support for Ukraine — including the possibility of American troops deployed to Europe if the war expands — Putin asked if there weren’t other things the U.S. should be concerned with.
“You have issues on the border. Issues with migration, issues with the national debt,” he said. “So you should fight in Ukraine? Wouldn’t it be better to negotiate with Russia?”
Garner believes that narrative resonates with Trump supporters, who have criticized the U.S. government for wasting money on Ukraine. In recent weeks, there have been a multitude of stories about how U.S. support for Ukraine — especially among Republicans — is wavering, that the country itself is on the defensive on the battlefield and that its military leadership is in turmoil.
Just hours before the interview was published, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskky dismissed his top general, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi.
“This is a great time for Putin to simply be spreading that story … that Ukraine’s fate is inevitable,” Garner said.
Garner doesn’t believe the interview marks any significant turning point — not in the U.S., nor in Russia, where Putin will almost certainly be re-elected in March.
But he said it gave him an opportunity to push his narrative.
“It comes at a really bad time for Ukraine, and it is clever politics for Putin and his team.”