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Critics Of Tucker Carlson’s Putin Interview Misunderstand The Content And Context

The Putin interview has raised many questions — but here are a few answers.


For all of legacy media’s efforts to discourage people from watching Tucker Carlson’s historic interview of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the effect was, well, the Streisand effect, creating a fever pitch of audience interest.

If subsequent commentary is any indication, however, the interview, with Putin’s lengthy monologue on history that seems arcane to Americans, his evident clarity of mind and even flashes of charm, and Carlson’s own (admitted) confusion by the direction Putin took the discussion, has raised at least as many questions as it answered.

Having now listened to the interview multiple times, here’s some background to contextualize Putin’s remarks.

1. Ignore the Experts

Western analysts of Russia — Reagan adviser Richard Pipes being a notable exception — have been spectacularly wrong for decades. Take, for example, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It caught the State Department, the media, and everyone else completely flat-footed.

Worse, they declared victory prematurely. Former New York Times Moscow Bureau Chief and Pulitzer Prize-winner Hedrick Smith captured the zeitgeist of the moment in his bestseller The New Russians. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was, he said, “a modern enactment of one of the archetypal stories of human existence, that of the struggle from darkness to light, from poverty toward prosperity, from dictatorship toward democracy.”

Seems laughable now, doesn’t it?

But this was a period of extraordinary, almost utopian, optimism. The Berlin Wall had come down only two years before the demise of the Soviet Union. An event, largely forgotten now, that seemed unthinkable. I recall about this same time buying a (pirated) CD of The Scorpions’ song “Wind of Change,” which celebrated these events and spoke of Western brotherhood with Russia. Where did I buy it? In Red Square of all places.

Who could have ever imagined that? Then a graduate student in Russian history, I didn’t. Neither did the experts. The point is, when it comes to Russia, everyone is guessing. If this was true when analysts were honest, it is doubly so now that they are dishonest. In their telling of it, Putin was lying to Carlson. Was he lying when he said the Canadian Parliament gave a standing ovation to a former member of the Waffen-SS simply because he had killed Russians in World War II? Was he lying about Obama’s CIA engineering a coup d’état of Ukraine’s government in 2014? No, he wasn’t.

2. Russia Isn’t Western in Any Recognizable Sense

The Western mind was shaped by the social and cultural forces of the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, and Scientific Revolution. Russia experienced none of these. As a consequence, Russian thinking is alien to Americans. Churchill was right: “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

So when Putin began the interview with a narrative of Russo-Ukrainian history and how the first Russian state was not founded in Moscow or St. Petersburg, but in Kiev — which is accepted as historical fact and key to his argument — it seemed, as Carlson himself put it, like a “filibuster.”

To Putin, however, this history matters. But to Americans who have little sense of their own history and even less of others’, it was diversionary. That is because America was founded and built by people who were very consciously leaving their histories behind. We are a forward-looking people.

Not Russians. Novelist Leon Uris wrote, “In Ireland there is no future, only the past happening over and over again.” The same might be said of Russia.

I cannot overemphasize this point. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Cairo. Bring up 9/11 there — and I would caution you in doing so — and Muslims will go straight to the Crusades. (As did Osama bin Laden, by the way, in offering his justification for the attacks.) They see the whole of subsequent history as an accident. The point isn’t whether they — or Putin — are right. The point is that they are both passionate believers in their own historical narratives.

3. Putin Sees the U.S. as Regional Provocateur in the Post-Soviet Era

In this, he is not wrong. If the founding of the Rurikid dynasty in the ninth century belongs to some misty, forgotten past in American minds, the past 30 years of U.S.-Russia relations certainly should not.

Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets followed an unswerving commitment to Marxist dogma when it came to “global revolution.” This was a policy of expansionism. Those who grew up in this era will recall the documentaries to which we were all subjected throughout our education. Disney-like animation depicted, accurately, the red hammer and sickle flag of the USSR bleeding outward from Russia to other parts of the world.

This was George Kennan’s “domino theory,” the idea that countries would fall to communism like dominoes until Russia was on our very doorstep. It seemed this was becoming a nightmarish reality when, in 1959, Cuba fell to Marxists and the Soviets attempted to put ballistic missiles there. JFK threatened nuclear war if Khrushchev forced the issue.

Putin says in the interview that when the USSR self-destructed, it was the hope of Russians to be accepted into the community of Western nations, not as a belligerent as in times past, but as a partner. One might be skeptical of the claim, but I can confirm that at least at ground level this is true.

When I was in Russia in the early and late ’90s and again in the early 2000s, Russians greeted Americans excitedly. You’ve never experienced hospitality as the Russians offered it. They liked Americans and wanted very much to be liked by them. They weren’t, as they saw it, the bad guys in a fluke Olympic hockey game or “Rocky IV,” but a free people, and they wanted to be treated as equals.

But now, in the years that followed the implosion of the USSR, U.S. policy toward Russia, which had heretofore been cautious and even respectful, became swaggeringly arrogant and aggressive. The U.S., via its NATO puppet, enacted a kind of domino theory in reverse, expanding that military alliance eastward to Russia’s very border:

1994: Sweden and Finland become partner states.

1999: Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland are added.

2004: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia are all added. The first three on this list are Russian border states.

2008: Discussions with Ukraine begin, angering Russia.

4. Russia Has Always Considered Ukraine as Vital to Its National Security

This brings us to the pivot year and what Putin called “The Main Thing.” Russia’s posture toward post-Soviet Ukraine has been that it must be free from Western meddling and preferably pro-Russian.

But in 2014, after many guarantees to Russia from the U.S. that Ukraine would remain an independent neutral state, Obama’s CIA toppled a freely elected, but pro-Russian, Ukrainian government, replacing it with a pro-U.S. regime. This was followed by what was, for Russia, a final provocation: Ukraine was invited to join NATO.

Putin responded by invading eastern Ukraine that same year in a preemptive effort to get the upper hand in what he regarded as the U.S.’s aim all along: to use Ukraine in a proxy war against Russia.

When I was last in Moscow in 2017, I think, Russians remained friendly, but the enthusiasm of the first decade of the post-Soviet Era was gone. Replacing it was a cynicism about U.S. intentions and the promise that freedom would hold for them if only they would abandon communism. Now there was, unbelievable to the Western mind, a growing nostalgia for the iron-fisted days of Stalin.

Insofar as this post-Soviet Era optimism and subsequent pessimism are concerned, my experiences in Ukraine in the early 2000s — and another six to seven visits over the next decade — mirrored those in Russia if for somewhat different reasons. Ukrainians saw America as a strategic ally, yes, but were finding democracy not to be the end-all they thought it would be. Freedom requires self-reliance, responsibility, a work ethic, and time consciousness — all things 75 years of socialism destroyed if ever they existed in Ukraine or Russia. (And I’m inclined to say they did not.)

By the time I was there doing research for my first book, The Grace Effect, which is, in a sense, a history of Ukraine, there was a growing desire among many Ukrainians, some 16 percent, to reunite with Russia. Sixteen percent isn’t a majority, but it isn’t nothing, and it reflected the ideological fractures within this historically unstable region. My own interpreter on one of these visits, a Ukrainian, talked incessantly of his admiration for Stalin. He was not an anomaly at that time.

Russians, however, increasingly saw us as an aggressor. If you dared engage them on political questions — and it’s hard not to on a Friday night in Moscow — they would reasonably ask: Why does NATO still exist? “The Evil Empire,” as Reagan called the Soviet Union, which constituted the very purpose for NATO’s existence, was dead. The Warsaw Pact, its opposition, had been dissolved. So why, they wanted to know, did we maintain such military partnerships, and against whom was the alliance directed? (If such questions were asked over shots of vodka — and they always were — you were likely to see a very different side of the Russian character.)

Putin made this point in the Carlson interview, saying that when he asked this question of then-President George W. Bush, he was told the alliance wasn’t to guard against a Russian invasion of Europe, but to defend against a possible Iranian nuclear attack on the continent. Putin, who isn’t a fool, rightly regarded this response as dishonest. (A cynic might say that the answer to why NATO still exists lies somewhere in Eisenhower’s warning of the growing influence of a “military-industrial complex.”)

5. Putin Is Politically Savvy, Ruthless, and a Russian Patriot

Putin recounted all of this history (and more) in a barely interrupted monologue without consulting a single note. His recounting of the ancient, complicated history of Russia and Ukraine is accurate to a point. But he downplayed Stalin’s atrocities, saying: “Stalin’s time … which as many claim saw numerous violations of human rights…” It is much more than a claim. It is true.

He also used the fact that many Ukrainians share the Russian language and culture as a justification for the annexation of Ukraine. Hitler employed similar reasoning in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere. It is the justification of conquerors. It also ignores Russia’s policy, begun by the Tsars in the 19th century and continued by the Bolsheviks, of “Russification.” This policy outlawed Ukrainian language and culture and mandated they be replaced with Russian language and culture. (My own daughter, adopted from Ukraine and wholly Ukrainian, was taught Russian, not Ukrainian.)

Even so, Putin came off as cool and reasonable throughout the interview. But make no mistake about it, he’s ruthless. I remind you of the Kursk submariners, the Spetsnaz assault on a Moscow theater, and Chechnya. Putin, it is alleged, has arrested, imprisoned, and assassinated both journalists and rivals. He recognizes the criminality of the Biden administration because he’s a criminal too. But there is this key difference between them: Putin is a Russian patriot who will do anything for Russia; Biden sold his soul and his country for personal gain.

6. The Real Reason for This War Isn’t Immediately Obvious

The forever (proxy) war with Russia cannot be blamed on Biden nor even on Democrats alone. American hostility to Russia in the post-Soviet Era began with Clinton, was continued by George W. Bush, saw escalation with Obama, and was escalated still further by Biden.

Ignore the lofty rhetoric of T-shirts and lapel pins. This war isn’t about freedom, democracy, or human rights violations in Ukraine. That’s a smokescreen. The Biden administration couldn’t care less about the Ukrainian people. Nor are they troubled by Putin’s tyranny and election rigging. After all, they are election-rigging tyrant wannabes. (Putin imprisoned his chief rival Alexei Navalny just as Democrats are trying to imprison Donald Trump, and Jan. 6 is about as Putin as it gets.)

The war on Putin is driven by two factors dear to the modern left. First, Putin opposes their aims in Ukraine. That country is not only a primary source of flesh for human traffickers, but the U.S. is using it for money laundering. Putin’s opposition to the Biden administration isn’t moral in nature any more than theirs is to him. Rather, this is a mafia turf war. He undoubtedly reasons that if anyone is going to exploit Ukraine, it will be Russia.

Second, Putin isn’t a globalist. Some have argued he is. But Russian patriotism — or American or Italian or Irish or British patriotism — is incompatible with globalism, and Putin, who controls the largest land mass on the planet, is a patriot.

A Word About Tucker Carlson

I admire Carlson’s courage given that the Biden administration did everything short of assassinating him to prevent this interview. Post-interview, he has been subjected to repulsive personal attacks for doing what any journalist with integrity would do. His position was impossible. On the one hand, he needed to appear tough; on the other, he needed to be fair — all while doing it in the Kremlin.

In the end, Carlson generally opted to get out of the way and let Putin speak, an approach foreign to a compromised media class that is sure we need to hear them more than the subject of the interview. Three years in the making, Carlson had no guarantees. A wrong move, a wrong question, and they might have Brittney Grinered him.

But he knew Putin wanted this interview. Why? Because, villain that he is, Putin calculated he had less to hide in Ukraine than does the Biden administration.

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