Five things the world learned from Tucker Carlson’s interview with Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin allowed Tucker Carlson to travel to Russia for a two-hour interview about the war in Ukraine, beginning with Putin’s lengthy version of the ancient history of the founding of the Russian state.

“I’m not exactly sure what I thought of the interview,” Carlson said afterward. “It’s probably going to take me a year to really decide what that was.”

In the meantime, here is a brief list of what can be learned from the interview.

Putin hasn’t abandoned his maximalist goals

Putin made clear that he’s still pursuing his maximalist ambitions to win the war and keep Ukraine in Russia’s sphere of influence. Carlson, expressing his anxiety that there is a risk the war “brings the entire world into conflict” that results in “some nuclear launch,” asked Putin if he would try to broker an end to the war with President Joe Biden

“What’s there to work out?” Putin replied. “If you really want to stop fighting, you need to stop supplying weapons. It will be over within a few weeks.”

Context: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated in January that “our goal is to de-occupy all our territories” — which is why he has rebuffed Western interest in a ceasefire deal with Russia, even when Gen. Mark Milley — then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — suggested in November of 2022 that Zelensky should begin “talks to initiate a political solution” to the war. And a senior Pentagon official warned on Thursday that Ukraine would be “back in the scenario that [they] were facing” when Russia attacked Kyiv in 2022 if Congress declines to give President Biden the supplemental funding authority to continue aid to Ukraine.

“The United States has not provided a presidential drawdown authority package since December because we’re out of money,” Dr. Celeste Wallander, the Defense Department’s lead official for international security affairs, said during an event Thursday with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Europe is sustaining Ukraine, in early 2024, in a way that the United States hopefully will return to, once we get the supplemental passed.”

Putin continues to shift blame about the war in Ukraine

Putin claimed that Ukraine started the war that broke out following an invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“As the Americans requested, Yanukovych did use neither the armed forces nor the police. Yet the armed opposition committed a coup in Kiev. … It was they who started the war in 2014. Our goal is to stop this war. And we did not start this war in 2022. This is an attempt to stop it.”

Context: The war in Ukraine began in 2014 in the midst of a controversy that arose when Putin objected to Ukraine’s signing of a free trade deal with the European Union — “We said, no, this is not going to work,” as he told Carlson, citing trade relations between Russia and Ukraine — and then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych acquiesced. That decision drew a protest in Kyiv’s Maidan Square in November 2014, which turned into a large-scale controversy after “riot police were ordered to attack the students camping on the Maidan,” as historian Serhii Plokhii wrote in the 2015 foreword to The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union. 

The violence took a lethal turn, with dozens of protesters shot and killed in February of 2015. Yanukovych agreed on Feb. 21 to hold a new presidential election that year as part of a deal brokered by neighboring European Union leaders. “But Yanukovych, who had no illusions about its outcome, fled his mansion near Kyiv that same night,” Plokhii wrote. “He drove with bodyguards to the Crimea, and made his way to the Russian Federation, where he was granted citizenship.”

Yanukovych admitted that “security forces” shot protesters in an interview from Russia, but he told the BBC that he “did not give any orders” that they do so. Putin, similarly, admitted — after a year of denials — that he ordered Russian special forces to seize Crimea from Ukraine after Yanukovych lost power. 

“I gave orders to the Defense Ministry — why hide it? — to deploy special forces of the GRU (military intelligence) as well as marines and commandos there under the guise of reinforcing security for our military facilities in Crimea,” Putin said in a 2015 documentary.

Russia is growing closer to and more reliant on China

Putin seemed rather awed by the power of the Chinese Communist Party.

“The West is afraid of strong China more than it fears a strong Russia because Russia has won 150 million people and China has 1.5 billion population,” he told Carlson. “And its economy is growing by leaps and bounds, or 5% a year. It used to be even more, but that’s enough for China. … China’s potential is enormous.” 

Context: Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping has functioned as a major diplomatic and economic bulwark for Putin throughout the war. It called for a “transformation of the global governance architecture and world order,” just weeks before Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Xi visited Moscow a year into the war and declared this process to be well underway.

“Now there are changes that haven’t happened in a hundred years,” Xi told Putin in March. “When we are together, we drive these changes.”

Yet China also faces serious troubles of its own, as Beijing’s attempt to grapple with the aftershocks of the pandemic and the economic competition with the United States has been hampered by corruption inside China — according to a Chinese political scientist.

“The central government came up with as many policies as possible to support private enterprises, but when they are being carried out at the local level, there are a lot of shady implementations, and some local practices even go against these policies,” Dr. Zheng Yongnian, described by the South China Morning Post as “an adviser to the central government,” said this week

Putin wants Western economic ties

Despite the frosty relations, Putin wants to get back to business with the West, most specifically through the resumption of natural gas sales to Germany. 

“After all, it is not only about Nord Stream One, which was blowing up, and the Nord Stream Two was damaged, but one pipe is safe and sound, and gas can be supplied to Europe through it,” he said. “But Germany does not open it. We are ready. Please.”

Context: Russian officials spent the first several months of the full-scale war confident that Germany’s dependence on Russia for natural gas would give the Kremlin the leverage needed to break Western unity in support of Ukraine. Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned natural gas provider, “cut deliveries in June … and if they are reduced further, German industries may soon confront fuel shortages that will compel them to scale back production,” the New York Times noted in July 2022.

Two months later, Poland and Norway celebrated the opening of the Baltic Pipe gas line, which the Polish prime minister touted as a sign that “the era of Russian domination in the field of gas is coming to an end — the era that was marked by blackmail, threats, and extortion.” 

That same day, a series of explosions damaged or destroyed the Nord Stream pipelines connecting Russia to Germany. (The pipelines had been inactive since the beginning of the full-scale invasion because Germany halted deliveries and the U.S. imposed sanctions on the project.)

Russia has accused the United States of destroying the pipelines. Other European officials surmised in the first days after the operation that Russia had attacked its own dormant pipelines in order to persuade Western European authorities that the Baltic Pipe and other undersea infrastructure would not be safe. And the Washington Post reported in November that Ukrainian officials orchestrated the attack.

“German leadership is guided by the interests of the collective West rather than its national interests,” Putin told Carlson. “Otherwise, it is difficult to explain the logic of their action or inaction.”

Hostage diplomacy is a live prospect

Carlson asked Putin to allow him to bring Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich back to the United States, but Putin refused.

“I do not rule out that the person you refer to, Mr. Gershkovich, may return to his motherland,” Putin said. “We are ready to talk. Moreover, the talks are underway and there have been many successful examples of these talks crowned with success. Probably this is going to be crowned with success as well. But we have to come to an agreement.”

Context: Gershkovich is a U.S. journalist assigned to the Moscow bureau of the Wall Street Journal. He was arrested in March 2023 on espionage charges.

“He’s not just a journalist,” Putin said. “He’s a journalist who is secretly getting confidential information.”

The Wall Street Journal maintains that he was engaged in legitimate reporting activities, which often involve gathering confidential information. “Evan is a journalist, and journalism is not a crime,” the Wall Street Journal said Friday evening.

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Putin implied that he would like to exchange Gershkovich for a Russian assassin convicted of murder for killing a former Chechen insurgent in Berlin.

“That person, due to patriotic sentiments, eliminated a bandit in one of the European capitals. … We want the U.S. special services to think about how they can contribute to achieving the goals our special services are pursuing.”

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