A lot of us watched the interview between Vladimir Putin and Tucker Carlson. And isn’t there a lot to talk about? The answer is a little less than all of the hype but still worth discussing.
First, I mean, you know, I will admit to having posted a fair bit about the importance of this interview. Of course, in part, it’s because I have a history of talking about, studying, and covering Russia. But also, because we are now entering almost the third year of war, with the Russians having invaded Ukraine, and it is increasingly not going very well for the Ukrainians, and therefore not very well for the United States and its allies. That means the timing of this interview is important, especially in the context of a very heated, very divisive US election, when support for Ukraine is increasingly becoming a matter of political difference. It wasn’t six months ago, but it certainly is becoming so very rapidly now.
Secondly, I have absolutely no problem with the idea of interviewing dictators. I think it’s important for people to understand what makes everyone tick – friends, adversaries, everyone around the world. The problem is, of course, that dictators usually don’t respect a free press. In Russia, in particular, the independent media is shut down, and journalists are imprisoned or sometimes assassinated. Certainly, Putin is not someone who has a history of valuing people that ask him independent-minded, tough questions.
Of course, that is not why Tucker Carlson was invited to interview Putin. He was invited because he is someone who historically has said that if he’s on a side, he’s not on the side of Ukraine; he’s on the side of Russia. He has given very favorable interviews with people who are ideologically aligned with Putin, like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the one European leader of a country that has consistently taken Putin’s side more closely than he has the Americans and the Europeans. But even if the interview is not likely to be particularly fair or elucidating, it is important. It’s important because it’s 2 hours with one of the most powerful people on the planet, so in that regard, we do need to know what’s being said.
So, let’s talk a little bit about the interview itself. First point, no news was made. Substantively, we learned really nothing new. Putin went on a very long history lesson with tangents, going back to Genghis Khan and the Roman Empire. Maybe we should talk about the fact that the Roman Empire is on Putin’s mind, too, just like so many people on Twitter. But if anything was going to lose a large percentage of your audience, that was almost guaranteed to do so. I remember so many trips to Beijing where you’d meet with Chinese leaders, and the first 20 minutes were about Chinese leadership and their rightful place in the world back in the 15th century. That’s something you do when you’re insecure. As the Chinese were doing better and becoming a larger economy and feeling more comfortable in the rest of the world, they did less of that.
Putin, of course, is doing worse. His economy is now smaller than Canada’s, despite having the largest geographic landmass of any country in the world. All these important resources, more nuclear weapons even than the United States. But he’s clearly not feeling very confident about that. Hence the need to give a huge history lesson to everyone who is willing to listen. And, of course, you know, not much Tucker could do there. It’s not like he’s going to suddenly start interrupting the Russian leader. It’s really unclear how much of this would appeal to your typical Tucker Carlson audience. I mean, Putin’s talk of a multipolar world is something I find fairly interesting. I do think that the global economic order is increasingly multipolar. The security order is not. It’s still dominated by the United States. But that doesn’t mean the US wants to be the world’s policeman. Especially given the divisions inside the United States, it’s very difficult for it to do so. And it has failed on many occasions. But I don’t think that that’s something that’s really going to engage a lot of people who are talking about or listening to this interview.
It was interesting that Putin said that he hasn’t talked to Biden since before the war. He said, ‘I can’t remember the last time I talked to him.’ I think the last time they certainly met in person was about six months before the war. I think it was in Geneva, it was 3 hours when Biden met with Putin, and I mean, Biden, you know, he talks a lot about how he’s spent a lot of time with Xi Jinping when they were both vice presidents, when they’re both presidents, something he’s proud of, this great man theory of politics that when you know someone and you engage with them, you can usually figure things out. He doesn’t actually know Putin well. He’s never really liked him. He doesn’t respect him. It’s obviously mutual. And clearly, Putin finds the fact that Biden has not reached out to him personally as opposed to, say, Emmanuel Macron or other, let’s say a Recep Erdogan from Turkey. That’s something that peaks that irritates him. He sees himself as the leader of a great power.
And of course, the Americans at the highest level should be engaging. I can see how a lot of what Putin had to say is interesting because it is the Russian perspective as engaged by a leader that we don’t hear a lot from. But the biggest problem, and it is a real problem in Putin’s worldview, is not on this stuff. That’s all wrong. I mean, it is true. There are things he said that absolutely I am sympathetic to. NATO expansion is a challenge for Russia. How could it not be? But it’s that he, like many great power types, like Kissinger, for example, consistently forgets about, intentionally forgets, one critical thing, and that is the agency of the countries involved: the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Czechs, the Latvians, none of them, none of these little countries have any agency at all in Putin’s story.
These are countries that all wanted to join NATO. Why? Why did they want to join NATO? It’s because they were worried about a Russia that behaves exactly as it has for the past 15 years in Georgia and in Ukraine and in so many other countries around the world. It’s the idea that a great power gets to do whatever it wants and that human rights and war crimes, those are for the little people. And, you know, the Americans have a hard time with a lot of this because the US is also not a signatory of the International Court of Justice. The Americans, you know, frequently ignore human rights when it’s not of interest to them. And there are a lot of charges of hypocrisy in the way the Americans support the Ukrainians but don’t care so much about the Palestinians. And those are fair points. But you cannot compare the United States to what Russia has been doing precisely because even given the power, the unchecked power of the United States and the hypocrisy and the human rights violations and all the challenges, the Russians have been consistent in their complete abrogation of any interest of human rights, of basic legal rights of their people, of all of their neighbors, and of the ability of other countries to make up their own mind.
And ultimately, the reason why Ukraine wanted to join NATO is not because the Americans enticed them, but because the Ukrainians wanted out of the Russian orbit. And fundamentally, even though the United States have given up on and have lost a lot of the values that made America great, you know, the end of World War II for example, still the United States, Americans at base think that people of the world have the right to decide their future. They have the right to self-determination. Even the Chinese, who are much closer friends of the Russians than they are the Americans or the Ukrainians, have consistently said that the Ukrainians have the right to self-determination. Yes, that even includes Crimea, according to the Chinese. Why would they say that? Because they do think that ultimately, they are a part of an international order that needs to be stable and needs to engage with other countries around the world, not only by dint of power.
They’ve got plenty of hypocrisy, too, but the Russians have given up on all of that. They’ve become chaos actors, and they want the destruction of the international order. I don’t think that Tucker Carlson has done a great disservice with the interview that’s been put forward. I don’t think it matters very much. And I don’t think Elon Musk has done a great disservice in putting a couple of hours out. I don’t think it matters all that much, but I do think it’s important for people that watch this interview to recognize that the key thing that Putin does not care about is any rights of any other countries that aren’t powerful. Other than the Russians to get things done. And that’s something he should care about because, you know, part of the reason the Russians are so screwed right now compared to the United States and their allies is precisely because they’re not all that powerful.
And you would think that if that’s the philosophy that Putin takes to the bank, that he would understand the way it applies to his country, too. Of course, dictators, narcissists, megalomaniacs, they never think that the rules that should apply to them actually do when things don’t go their way. They’re all sort of great at what should work for them and not when things are more challenging. Not a surprise that that is the way a dictator responds. This interview was on his territory. It was his time, and he got his message out the way he wanted to. And ultimately, none of us are going to care all that much.
That is where we are, and I hope that was interesting and useful. Be well, and I’ll talk to you all real soon