Putin Almost Blew It

On Thursday, Feb. 8 Tucker Carlson provided Vladimir Putin an opportunity to present his views to an enormous global audience, including tens of millions of Americans and other denizens of the “collective West” who watched the two-hour interview when it was first posted online and later. The interview had over 115 million views by Friday afternoon, just on the X/Twitter platform alone. The complete tally won’t be known for some days, but thanks to the Internet it is certain to surpass all other famous examples of the genre: Robert Frost’s 1977 Nixon interviews, Oriana Fallaci’s 1979 interview with Khomeini, or Princess Diana’s 1995 BBC interview.

On balance, the Russian president did not acquit himself very well. He started with a 35-minute discourse on Russian history harking back to the early Middle Ages. While an area specialist might beg to differ with Putin on many of the finer points in the historical record, his notes-free presentation was at least articulate, coherent, and focused. Unfortunately for him, it was also an absurdly inappropriate topic for the likely target audience.

Carlson himself was taken aback by what looked to him at first as “a filibustering technique.” When interrupted, Putin was annoyed (“are we having a talk show or a serious conversation?”) and continued with his part-academic lecture, part-stream of consciousness. A long, tedious quote is needed to illustrate the point:

The Russian state started developing as a centralized statehood, and it is considered that the year of the establishment of the Russian state is 862, when the townspeople of Novgorod invited a Varangian Prince, Rurik from Scandinavia, to reign. In 1862, Russia celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of its statehood. In Novgorod, there is a memorial dedicated to that anniversary. In 882, Rurik’s successor, Prince Oleg (who was actually playing the role of regent to Rurik’s young son, because Rurik had died by that time), came to Kiev. He ousted two brothers who apparently had once been members of Rurik’s squad. Russia began to develop with two centers of power, Kiev and Novgorod. This was the baptism of Russia under Prince Vladimir, a great-grandson of Rurik… From this time, the centralized Russian state began to strengthen… In the Middle Ages, Prince Jaroslav the Wise introduced the order of succession to the throne. But after he passed away, it became complicated for various reasons. The throne was passed not directly from father to eldest son, but from the prince who had passed away to his brother, then to his sons in different lines. All this led to fragmentation…

And so on, ad nauseam. It was surreal, at times on the verge of insanity.

At one point Carlson asked Putin to clarify what period he was talking about (“I’m losing track of where in history we are”). “I will tell you what happened later,” Putin replied unperturbed, “and give the date so that there is no confusion.” He duly went on about the Russo-Polish rivalry in the 17th century. “So that you don’t think that I’m inventing things I’ll give you these documents,” he said, as an aide promptly walked in with a hefty file. “It doesn’t sound like you’re inventing,” Carlson said with an air of near-exasperation, “and I’m not sure why it’s relevant to what happened two years ago.” Putin wouldn’t budge:

But still, these are documents from the archives, copies. Here are the letters from Bogdan Hymelnitsky, the man who then controlled the power in this part of the Russian lands that is now called Ukraine. He wrote to Warsaw, demanding that their rights be upheld. After being refused, he began to write letters to Moscow, asking to be protected by the strong arm of the Tzar. There are copies of these documents. I will leave them for you good memory. [sic!] There is a translation into Russian. You can translate it into English later. Russia would admit them straight away, assuming that the war with Poland would result. Nevertheless, in 1654 the Pan-Russian Assembly of senior clergy and landowners headed by the Tsar, which was the representative body of the power of the old Russian state, decided to include this part of the old Russian lands into Moscow’s realm. As expected, the war with Poland began. It lasted 13 years, and then in 1654, a truce was concluded. And 32 years later, I think, a peace treaty with Poland was signed …

At this point, while resisting an imminent fall into the arms of Morpheus, I realized that Putin—for all his obvious intelligence, eloquence, and command of facts—does not know rhetoric and does not understand the art of communication (as evidenced by the continued presence of Dmitry Peskov at the post of presidential spokesman). Here he was, squandering an incredible opportunity to present his side of the story, succinctly and clearly, on a myriad of important issues. Not once did Putin mention wokeism, cancel culture, politicized sexual deviancy, transgenderism, or any other cultural issues about which he is known to have sound views and which would resonate with a significant segment of his foreign audience.

(“Tucker, I explain to you the roots of your American Civil War,” Hernan Cortes commented on X. “You mean like the Missouri Compromise, or…” “NO, I must start with the arrival of Saxon warlords Hengist and Horsa on the shores of Britain in the year 449 AD…”)

The remaining 90 minutes of the interview were more to the point than the disastrous first 35 minutes, but on the whole, they were still devoid of fresh ideas and insights. Putin’s views on the key issues can be summarized as follows:

  • “The former Russian leadership assumed that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, and therefore, there were no longer any ideological dividing lines.” It believed that this would be understood by the West as an invitation for cooperation, but it got five rounds of relentless eastward NATO expansion instead, contrary to earlier promises.
  •  “The West is afraid of strong China more than it fears a strong Russia.” China is not a sinister power with imperial ambitions, however, as witnessed by Russia’s record.
  • American presidents are not the key decisionmakers they purport to be. Whatever they say or think, unelected advisors and agency heads ultimately call the shots. To wit, the U.S. continued to support separatism and terrorism in the North Caucasus even after President George W. Bush promised Putin that such practice would stop.
  •  “If you really want to stop fighting [in Ukraine], you need to stop supplying weapons. It will be over within a few weeks. That’s it. Then we can agree on some terms.”
  • A scenario where Russian troops are sent to Poland is imaginable “only in one case, if Poland attacks Russia … [W]e have no interest in Poland, Latvia, or anywhere else.”
  •  “A global war will bring all humanity to the brink of destruction. It’s obvious. There are certainly means of deterrence.” Mutual assured destruction works both ways.
  •  “Do the United States need this? … You have issues on the border, issues with migration, issues with the national debt, more than $33 trillion. You have nothing better to do, so you should fight in Ukraine? Wouldn’t it be better to negotiate with Russia, make an agreement … start respecting our country and its interests, and look for certain solutions?”
  • The U.S. blew up the Nord Stream pipeline, it alone had both the motive and the means. Yet “today’s German leadership is guided by the interests of the collective West rather than its national interests … Those are highly incompetent people.”
  •  “To use the dollar as a tool of foreign policy struggle is one of the biggest strategic mistakes made by the U.S. political leadership … Seeing this, everyone starts looking for ways to protect themselves.” The result is rapid dedollarization. The BRICS economies are rapidly growing. “You cannot prevent the sun from rising.”
  • The most stringent sanctions in the world have been applied against Russia, “and we have become Europe’s first economy during this time. The tools that U.S. uses don’t work… If this realization comes to the ruling elites… maybe something will change.”
  • Zelensky does not have the freedom to negotiate a settlement. His hands are tied by neo-Nazi extremists at home and by the U.S.-led collective West abroad. In addition, he has issued a decree prohibiting negotiations with Russia. “We hear all the time, Is Russia ready? Yes, we have not refused. It was they who publicly refused. Well, let him cancel his decree and enter into negotiations. We have never refused.”

Towards the end Carlson asked an interesting question: “Do you see the supernatural at work as you look out across what’s happening in the world now? Do you see God at work?” “No, to be honest, I don’t think so,” Putin replied. “My opinion is that the development of the world community is in accordance with the inherent laws, which are what they are.”

Now at least we know that Putin is not a conservative. If there is one conviction that defines one, it is, first and foremost, the conviction that we live in a created world that has purpose and meaning—but at the same time, it is a fallen world of sinful people, for the sake of whose redemption God sent his only begotten Son to die for us and thus redeem us. That world is ruled by divine laws that are not subject to relativistic thinking and human revision, and most certainly not by some impersonal yet immutable “inherent laws.”

At the very end Carlson asked Putin whether he was saying he wanted a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Ukraine. Putin replied that even at this stage “there are options if there is a will”:

Up until now, there has been the uproar and screaming about inflicting a strategic defeat on Russia on the battlefield … It is never going to happen. It seems to me that now, those who are in power in the West have come to realize this as well. If so, if the realization has set in … we are ready for this dialogue … Sooner or later, it will result in agreement. You know, this probably sounds strange given the current situation, but the relations between the two peoples will be rebuilt anyway. It will take a lot of time, but they will heal.

Between the lines, Putin’s message seems to be that Russia will settle for something less than its stated goal of “demilitarization” (i.e., total military defeat) and “denazification” (i.e., regime change) in Ukraine. It is uncertain whether he fully understands that “the West”—meaning primarily the Biden administration—in order to accept that Russia’s strategic defeat is impossible, would have to see Russians make significant battlefield gains. They would need to be far more impressive than some tactical successes in the meatgrinders of Bakhmut and Avdeevka, which are eerily reminiscent of Verdun and the Somme in 1916.

In short, President Vladimir V. Putin missed significant opportunities to explain himself and his country to an unprecedented Western audience in this interview, though on balance the interview nevertheless was a plus for him. As our occasional contributor James Jatras put it to me,

No American, no European, could fail to notice the contrast between Putin’s command, for over two hours, of facts, dates, personalities, and events, versus the anointed “Leader of the Free World,” a pathetic mummy in the Oval Office who can’t even remember his middle name. Second, while some of the details of the current conflict and its causes could and should have been better laid out, Western viewers saw and heard not a power-hungry madman bent on conquest but a statesman who is thoughtful, moderate and compromising—indeed, too compromising for his country’s own good—who has tried, with multiple Western leaders over a period of decades, either to join the West or, when that failed, to get along with it, and has been met at every turn with lies and aggression.

None of what Putin said is new to those who have closely followed the sad saga of post-Soviet Ukraine, but the tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of people who will watch this interview because of the identity of the interviewer, are unlikely ever again to accept uncritically the standard narrative spewed out by Western regimes and their media lapdogs.

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