Tucker Carlson and Vladimir Putin sat down for a two hour interview. This interview will be one of the most watched in history. It offers an interesting lesson to understand the current geopolitical climate and think about statecraft.
Ep. 73 The Vladimir Putin Interview pic.twitter.com/67YuZRkfLL
— Tucker Carlson (@TuckerCarlson) February 8, 2024
Takeaway One from the Tucker Carlson and Vladimir Putin Interview: Russian Nationalism
A lot of people compare Putin’s regime to the USSR. This is a mistake. In fact, Putin begins the interview with a lengthy overview of Russian history. Thus, he clearly indicates his strong sense of Russian nationalism. He is not a Communist and clearly not influenced by Marxist-Leninist ideology. The most notable rejection of communism is the embrace of Orthodox Christianity. Thus, the interview demonstrates that his invasion of Ukraine was not driven by an ideological motive. On the other hand, he sees the territories of Ukraine as historically Russian with ties to Russia. The interview will come full circle and on this point when Puting suggests that the war is actually a civil war.
Takeaway Two: Misleading World War II History
During the historical overview of Russia, Putin talks about the “collaboration” of Poland with Nazi Germany. This is misleading. It is the equivalent of saying that Britain and France “collaborated” with Hitler by signing the Treaty of Munich. He says that Poland participated in the partition of Czechoslovakia with Hitler. He then mentions that Poland was uncompromising, which led to Hitler’s invasion on September 1, 1939. How is it possible for a nation to be both collaborating and uncompromising? Its not clever double talk. Just double talk.
Putin only mentions the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact as a side note and says Russia “then known as the USSR” was given its historical lands. The truth is that the Russians collaborated with Hitler under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The pact is named after the German and Russian foreign minister that negotiated the treaty. This was a non-aggression pact between Russia and Germany that opened the door for Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Furthermore, it allowed Soviet Russia to invade eastern Poland, which they did. The Nazis and Soviet Communists divided Poland and invaded from both the east and west. For more information, check out the book review about the book Stalin’s War: A New History of World War II.
Takeaway Three: The Door to Rapprochement Closed
Vladimir Putin claims that he approached U.S. President Bill Clinton about Russia joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He said that Clinton was warm to the idea. However, after Clinton spoke to his team, he said it was not possible for Russia to join.
Putin also discusses the NATO-led strikes against Serbia under Slobodan Milošević. While western led governments believed this was a justified use of force, Russia saw this as an attack on Serbian people, who have a special relationship to Russia. Thus, in the post-Cold War era, this was a moment that drove a wedge between Russia and the U.S.
After the U.S. was attacked on September 11, 2001, there also appeared to be moments of rapprochement between the U.S. and Russia on the issue of fighting terrorism. However, Putin claims the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) caused unrest in the northern Caucus region of Russia. This is a part of Russia that incorporates Chechnya and Dagestan. Russia fought counterinsurgencies in Chechnya for decades. Furthermore, there have between terrorist attacks linked to radical Islamic groups in the region. Putin nonchalantly suggests that the CIA enflamed the unrest in the North Caucus region. His suggestion that this was after 9/11 does not fit chronologically with when the bulk of the fighting took place. Most of the heavy fighting took place during the First Chechen War in the 1990s and the Second Chechen War began in 1999. Although it continued after 9/11, the major Russian offensives occurred before 2001.
Finally, Putin brought up Russian disagreement over Bush era policies tied to U.S. strategic missile defense. The objection was over proposed U.S. based missile defenses in the Czech Republic and Poland. At the time, Putin also railed against America’s invasion of Iraq and claimed America’s actions destabilized the region.
There is enough finger pointing to go around. The fact of the matter is that both the United States and Russia have valid reasons to regard the other with suspicion. While U.S. leadership has been open to building relationships, U.S. intel agencies and the national defense establishment has been against serious rapprochement. After nearly five decades countering the Soviet superpower, the D.C. defense bureaucracy seemed unwilling to change course in its overall presumption of Russia as a hostile actor. Thus, as high level diplomacy seemed to allow for moments of rapprochement, things were different beneath the surface.
Tucker seized on this saying, “Twice you have described U.S. Presidents making decisions and being undercut by their agency heads. So it sounds like you are describing a system that is not run by the people who are elected in your telling.” Putin responds, “That’s right. That’s right.” This was a telling moment. It fits into a recurring criticism of American intelligence agencies working outside of the will of the American people’s elected representatives. Carlson has spearheaded much of the criticism. The term for the intel agencies and D.C. bureaucracy is colloquially known as the “deep state.”
Later in the interview Tucker and Putin talk about the Nord Stream pipeline sabotage. In this discussion, Putin also asserts the CIA’s involvement in the sabotage of the pipeline.
Takeaway Four: Ukrainian Policy
Putin says the CIA backed a coup in Ukraine in 2014. He describes this as a “colossal mistake.” His retelling of the situation is that in 2008 the door was open for Ukraine to join NATO and the European Union (EU). In 2014, a coup overthrew Viktor Yanukovych and removed him from power. He claims that the coup forced Russia to take Crimea. But how can Putin classify this as a mistake if he was able to take Crimea? Perhaps he means a mistake for America. Alternatively, Russia forced Yanukovych to reject an EU trade deal. One can just as easily flip the script back on Putin and make the case that Russia’s intransigence pushed Yanukovych into a corner. Furthermore, the coup provided Russia the pretext to begin their annexation of Ukrainian territories like Crimea.
Putin cites an agreement between Yanukovych and his political opposition at the height of the protests. Diplomatic representatives from Germany, France, and Poland helped broker the signed agreement, which was supposed to restore the 2004 Ukrainian Constitution. It was also supposed to resolve the political crisis of the large scale protests in Kyiv’s Independence Square aka the Maidan. In the aftermath, police were removed from Kyiv and Yanukovych fled from office. Yanukovych’s political opposition took over and established an interim government. Putin categorizes these events as being instigated and led by the CIA. He thinks everything bad that happens to Russia is led by the CIA. But the CIA did not force Yanukovych to reject the EU trade deal. Putin did that.
At the conclusion of his retelling of the 2013-2014 Euromaidan unrest that led to the overthrow of Yanukovych, Putin makes statements about what was and was not agreed to. He says, “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, our borders should be along the borders of former Union’s republics. We agreed to that, but we never agreed to NATO’s expansion. And, moreover, we never agreed that Ukraine would be in NATO.” What agreement is he talking about? What is in writing? This is why nation’s negotiate treaties. There is no guarantee or agreement other than informal talks. One of the principles of statecraft is to negotiate treaties and secure your nation’s interests.
To end the current conflict, there will have to be a formal negotiation. The interview reveals what we know to be one of Putin’s primary interests, which is to prohibit Ukraine from joining NATO. To end the war, this will be one of the main points of negotiation.
Takeaway Five: The Minsk Agreements
These were a series of agreements in 2014 that were aimed at stopping the fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Russian backed separatists fought against Ukrainian forces, and still do. However, after the invasion, there is no longer plausible deniability for Russia. Russia seeks to claim the Donbas and other territories in eastern Ukraine.
The Minsk agreements broke down at least once as fighting continued. The second Minsk agreements ultimately broke down with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Putin claims Russia had to invade to stop the fighting in the region. That is not true. Russia is equally culpable if not more so for the failure of the Minsk agreements.
What actually happened in the subsequent 2022 invasion was a significant intelligence failure on the part of Russia. Their invasion of Ukraine failed insofar as their objective was to secure all or most of Ukraine including Kyiv. However, they still control much of eastern Ukraine. By the time the ink dries on a final ceasefire, they may end up controlling the territory that was contested in the original Minsk Agreements notably in the Donbas region. In that regard, Russia’s invasion will have been successful albeit with a high cost and tragic loss of life.
Takeaway Six: 2022 Invasion, Russia-Ukraine War, Current State
Putin claims that he withdrew troops from Kyiv as a gesture of goodwill for negotiations. Maybe he is convinced by this assessment, but anyone who watched the military situation unfold can see what really happened. The Russian army was not able to take Kyiv. It was either a giant feint or a tremendous military miscalculation. Furthermore, the Russian invasion caused a predictable reaction of Ukrainian forces defending their borders and fighting against Russian forces. Putin is nonchalant on this point and pretends that everything should have gone back to normal after withdrawing from Kyiv. Of course, Russian forces still control much of eastern Ukraine.
Furthermore, Putin claims that part of the Russian objective is “de-Nazification.” Tucker pushes him to explain what he means by de-Nazification. Putin goes into a lengthy explanation about Ukrainian nationalists that he claims “collaborated” with Hitler and killed Russians, Jews, and Poles. Tucker then presses him that perhaps he is fighting wars from the past. Tucker says World War II is over and Hitler has been dead for almost eighty years. But, Putin counters by stating that President Zelensky went to the Canadian parliament and honored a man who collaborated with Nazis and killed Russians.
Putin is clearly speaking to what he knows is a Western audience that will be sympathetic to fighting Nazis. As is often the case in war, one side tries to dress the conflict up as a moral fight. That is what Putin is attempting to do with the de-Nazification rhetoric.
Takeaway Seven: Failed and Non-Existent Negotiations
Tucker asks an obvious question, “Have you called President Biden?” Putin does not offer details and he pretends not to remember the last call that he had. He mentions that he told Biden that it would be a mistake to support Ukraine. Furthermore, if the U.S. wanted a negotiation then America should stop funding Ukraine. As a result, American funding of Ukraine is a key negotiating point. Not long after the interview, U.S. leadership dismissed coming back to the negotiation table. In fact, the interview is only a few months after a POLITICO story about the U.S. shifting its strategy on Ukraine to a “defensive posture.”
The last time that Biden and Putin held direct talks was at a summit in Geneva in June 2021. However, nothing conclusive emerged from the summit. U.S. and Russian relations have sank to their lowest point since the Cold War.
Many politicians and supporters of funding Ukraine believe that Putin’s war against Ukraine is a pre-cursor to invading other countries. Tucker asks him about this. On the question of whether Russia will try to invade Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, or other parts of Europe, Putin denies it and says, it is “absolutely out of the question.” While this might be true, the issue is the lack of trust. There can be no assurance of this without a formal negotiation in which all sides are held accountable for future actions.
Takeaway Eight: The Nord Stream Pipeline
There is a moment of levity in the interview when Tucker asks him, “Who blew up the Nord Stream pipeline?” Putin laughs and says, “You for sure.” Tucker wryly smiles and replies, “I was busy that day.” Putin laughs and says, “You personally may have an alibi but the CIA has no such alibi.” Putin’s accusation is that the CIA was behind the sabotage of the pipeline is consistent with his claims that the CIA is behind most international events related to Russia.
The question is why. Putin’s reply is cagey. He offers no evidence when Tucker asks him for it. Instead, he says, “Look for someone that is interested.” He responds by saying that you have to look at who is interested and who has capabilities.
Tucker feigns confusion and tells him that this could have been a chance to score a propaganda victory. Putin claims, “In the war of propaganda, it is very difficult to defeat the United States because the United States controls all the worlds media and many European media.” Tucker presses him to explain why Germany wouldn’t say something about the sabotage. Putin replies that it is difficult to know but offers the explanation that Germany is guided more by the interests of the “collective West” than their national interests.
Thus, in the discussion of Nord Stream, Putin tries to hit two criticisms that might resonate with more conservative audiences. First, he criticizes the American-led global media, which many people distrust. Second, he speaks against countries like Germany that prioritize globalism over their own national interests. Both of these points are politically shrewd to make toward Western audiences especially those that follow Tucker Carlson.
Takeaway Nine: Russia-China, Economic Pressure, and the U.S. Dollar
One of the principle tools of U.S. pressure against Russia has been sanctions and restricting access to U.S. dollar based transactions. Putin claims that it was “self-conceit” for the U.S. to apply financial pressure to Russia by restricting Russian access to the U.S. dollar. Putin’s argument is that America has cut its nose to spite its face. Until 2022, 80% of Russian foreign trade transactions were made in U.S. Dollars and Euros. Now transactions in dollars are down to 13%. The argument is that the U.S. Dollar has been an instrument of power. But, restricting access to the dollar has hurt the United States. Furthermore, it has strengthened Russia’s relationship with China. Russia has gone from 3% of transactions in yuan to over 30% of transactions in yuan.
Tucker concedes that this is a fair point, but challenges him to think about dealing with China versus the United States. In fact, Tucker says explicitly that Russia “might be exchanging one colonial power for another” that might not respect Russia’s sovereignty. Putin dismisses this as a “boogeyman” story. He mentions the large border that Russia shares with China, a history of peaceful co-existence with China, and what he claims is a Chinese policy of looking for compromise.
Since the Russia-Ukraine war began, there has been a lot of focus on the close relationship between Russia and China. In the interview, Putin confirms that this relationship has deepened. Furthermore, Putin calls Xi Jinping his friend. He cites a goal between the two countries to do $200 billion in mutual trade. He claims that they were able to exceed this goal and mutual trade totals $230-240 billion.
So why has U.S. economic pressure not worked?
Look no further than the rise of what is known as the “BRICS.” BRICS describes the economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. On the other side of the BRICS are the G7 economies of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. Putin cites a statistic that in 1992 the G7 economies accounted for 47% of the world economy, but in 2022 that share was down to a little over 30%. It is true that in 2020, the BRICS surpassed the G7 in terms of total gross domestic product as measured by purchasing power parity (PPP). In fact, Putin asserts that China has surpassed the U.S. economy in terms of purchasing power parity.
As a result, one of the critical reasons that Russia has been able to wage war on Ukraine is that the principal deterrent of economic sanctions has faded with the rise of the BRICS economies. U.S. leadership needs to appreciate the ramifications of this shifting economic power dynamic. U.S. policymakers should take a hard look at whether economic sanctions will continue to work. I have argued in a previous essay that they have not worked even when America had a stronger global economic position than in 2022. In fact, U.S. economic sanctions might be counterproductive. Why is Putin saying all this? This seems to be a moment for him to gloat and take what he believes to be a victory lap. He seems content to think that the U.S. and Europeans made a miscalculation in the use of economic pressure.
Takeaway Ten: On Volodymyr Zelensky
Tucker asks about Volodymyr Zelensky and if he has the freedom to negotiate a treaty with Russia. Putin responds by mentioning a conversation he had with Zelensky about neo-Nazis in Ukraine. Putin says that Zelensky’s father fought against the fascists. However, he claims to be puzzled why Zelensky won’t expel neo-Nazis from his country. It is important to note that Zelensky is Jewish. These claims against Zelensky are vague and involve the consistent Putin refrain about nationalist elements in Ukraine.
This seems to be a tactic of Putin to paint Ukraine as a bastion of Nazism. He clearly believes this will bring sympathy to his war efforts. It is also interesting that he believes by starting a war in Ukraine that he is actually ending one that began almost a decade prior after Yanukovych left office.
Putin claims that Ukraine and Zelensky refuse to negotiate. But, there is no reason for them to do so while Russia does not have the upper hand militarily. The problem for Putin is that Russia’s military operations have not been successful enough to achieve its strategic objectives. If they had been successful in claiming Kyiv, they would have had more leverage to force Zelensky to negotiate. However, their battlefield failures prevented them from having the ability to force Ukraine’s leadership to the negotiation table. Moreover, as long as Ukraine has U.S. and European assistance, there is no reason for them to negotiate. Russia’s military failure allowed Western powers time to send weapons and money to Ukraine. Thus, the conflict has reached a stalemate. No side is willing to negotiate. In reality, given the current situation, no side has to negotiate now. However, this might be changing for Ukraine, which is why Putin is doing the interview.
Takeaway Eleven: The Difference Between Russia and the West
There is an interesting part of the interview where Tucker asks him about being a “Christian leader.” Tucker wants to know how he reconciles Christian faith and the war that Russia is waging. At this point, Putin uses the question as an opportunity to say that the war is one of self-defense. He insists that he is protecting the Russian homeland.
Tucker asks him if he sees God at work in what is going on in the world. Putin says, “No, to be honest, I don’t think so.” He then mentions the “world community” following “inherent laws.” This analysis is less about natural law as we understand it in America. Instead, he outlines an ebb and flow of power. In a general sense, he says that this is a natural course of events. In fact, he references the fall of the Roman empire which took five centuries to fall apart. He concludes that things are happening at a much faster pace in the modern day. To which Tucker responds, “So when does the AI empire start?” This question causes Putin to laugh. The conversation then focuses on technology. Putin even discusses his respect for Elon Musk and his assessment that Musk is a smart man. However, Putin’s attitude on technology is fatalistic. He seems resigned to an inevitability of scientific and technological progress. However, his goal like every world power is not to fight it, but to figure out how to control it.
Putin claims that the U.S. does not have the same moral sense as Russians. However, he contradicts himself. The American founding was based on an understanding of natural law grounded in a moral order. America’s founding fathers believed in a natural law which endowed natural rights to each individual. All human beings can recognize the moral order through a God-given conscience. On the other hand, Putin’s idea of the natural law is a scientific and sociological reflection rather than an introspection on a divine moral order. He is able to get away with his claims about the U.S. being more “pragmatic” rather than moral because America has shifted in a secular direction. A significant portion of America’s population and leadership has put more faith in “science” and secular principles than in God and divinity.
Takeaway Twelve: Evan Gershkovich
Tucker brings up Wall Street Journal reporter, Evan Gershkovich. Russia detained Evan in March 2023. Tucker asks Putin if “as a sign of your decency you will release him to us and we will bring him back to the United States.” Putin lets out a deep sigh. He refuses by mentioning that there have been multiple gestures of goodwill on the part of Russia. Putin asserts, “Our partners must make reciprocal steps.” He then says, “Special services are in contact with one another. They are talking about the matter in question.”
Prisoner swaps and exchanges are a major part of negotiating between hostile powers. Tucker accepts the reality that this is all part of the web of negotiations. But, he presses Putin on the claims that Gershkovich was receiving information as a spy. Despite Tucker’s objections, Putin does not budge and continues to defer to the talks taking place between “special services.”
At this point, Tucker says, “I hope you will let him out” and then tries to end the interview. Putin guffaws at this and continues to press on.
Takeaway Thirteen: The Interview Continues on Negotiating
Will Russia talk? Will there be a dialogue and negotiations? The central problem is that neither the U.S. or Russia want to talk. We are approaching year three of the war and there is no end in sight. Russia’s strategy seems to be to hold out until American and European funding dries up. At that point, Ukraine might start to feel the pressure of coming to the negotiating table. Zelensky will have no choice if the U.S. cuts off aid.
However, Putin doesn’t seem to trust the West anymore than the West trusts Putin. In fact, what we are left with is a tragic situation in which the goodwill on both sides has been totally exhausted. If President Trump returns to the White House, he claims that he will open a dialogue with Putin. Perhaps the Russian leader is counting on that. In fact, Trump has never cared about media and D.C. think tank opinion, so he will be impervious to the media and D.C. establishment class shrieking about him and Russia.
Putin’s only remark on Trump is that he had a good personal relationship with him like he did with Bush. But, he believes (as Tucker does) that there are other forces in the U.S. government that make negotiating difficult. There are forces bigger than the president. Again, this is an allusion to what has been characterized as the “deep state.” In fact, earlier in the interview, Putin says that aspects of the defense establishment were focused on fighting the USSR for years. These elements still persist.
Nevertheless, the U.S. and Russia must talk to end the war. If not, the war will continue to drag on indefinitely.
Takeaway Fourteen: A Civil War
In the last minutes, Putin reveals how he feels about the war and expresses it as a “civil war.” He tells the story about a Ukrainian unit that still identified as Russian. Then he states that the Ukrainian authorities are banning the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. He claims that the reason is because the church “brings together not only the territories but also our souls.” He then concludes, “No one will be able to separate the soul.”
On this point, we see a return to the first part of the interview and perhaps the biggest takeaway. The war is about Russian unification. There is a strong nationalist component to the war. Furthermore, this answers the question of being a “Christian leader.” It is not that Putin sees himself as a follower of Jesus Christ. The church plays a role in uniting the Russian people to include the Russian people within Ukraine. Thus, the church is a tool for unification.
Takeaway Fifteen: “Seriousness”
There is a recurring theme of “seriousness” that comes up in the interview. In fact, it starts at the outset of the interview when Putin asks Tucker if they are going to have a serious conversation. Putin brings it up again at various points in the interview. This seems to signal his commitment to the conflict. He is trying to portray himself as a deep thinker on these matters. The invasion of Ukraine took much of the Western powers by surprise. No one predicted it and many analysts thought Putin wouldn’t do it. But, he did. Now he is trying to use the interview platform to make a case for why it was the right decision.
Nevertheless, for all of the talk of “seriousness”, he is unserious when it comes to engaging in a dialogue with his American counterpart, President Biden. Of course, President Biden has labeled him a war criminal. If this is a serious accusation in itself, then it makes dialogue hard from the U.S. perspective.
In fact, the interview is itself a dialogue with Western audiences and does lay the groundwork for talks. Going into an election year, it looks like President Biden and the Democrats will campaign on continuing to fund Ukraine and supporting a proxy war against Russia. Trump and the Republicans will campaign on ending the war. Putin’s interview signals that there will be an end to the war when the U.S. is willing to be “serious” about talks.
Finally, it is clear that the U.S. and Russia need to negotiate a treaty of some type. The problem with cold wars is that there is rarely treaties that are negotiated ending the hostilities. The Cold War had multiple treaties tied to tactical elements like arms control agreements. However, there was never a treaty that defined the path forward for the U.S. and Russia. As a result, this caused a lot of broken informal promises, “miscalculations”, and continued distrust. All of that tragically persists to this day.