Former prime-time Fox News host Tucker Carlson – long known as a public cheerleader for Donald Trump – has conducted a wide-ranging two-hour interview with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Carlson, who has consistently argued Russia’s case for its invasion of Ukraine, posted his interview on both his own site and on Elon Musk’s X (formerly Twitter). There – according to Kremlin mouthpiece Pravda – it chalked up more than 90 million views within hours of being posted.
As the pair faced each other in a large, virtually empty Kremlin office, Putin immediately put Carlson on the defensive, demanding: “Are we having a talk show or serious conversation?” He then gave his interlocutor a 25-minute history lesson – a mix of mythical and actual history going back over a millennium – to show both how Ukrainians and Russians were not really separate peoples.
The interview was wide-ranging: Ukraine, China, multi-polarity, Putin’s opinion of several former US presidents as well as his predecessors Lenin, Stalin, and Yeltsin. Discussing US politics, Putin touched on Elon Musk, Donald Trump, and what he called the warlike “mindsets” of US foreign policy elites.
NATO slammed, MAGA boosted
When it came to the war in Ukraine, predictably the Russia president blamed what he identified as Nato expansionism and threats to his country’s security. He recounted how he had offered a hand of friendship to the US: “Please don’t [expand Nato eastward]. We are as bourgeois now as you are. We are a market economy, and there is no Communist party power. Let’s negotiate.” But his overtures were spurned by the US elites.
Also predictably, both interviewer and interviewee took the opportunity to boost Donald Trump and his Make America Great Again (Maga) voter base. Trump has already said he would end US military aid to Ukraine “very quickly” by withdrawing US aid, something that Putin stressed in the interview: “If you really want to stop fighting, you need to stop supplying weapons. It will be over within a few weeks.”
But Putin chose not to dwell at length on what a Trump presidency could do for him. Instead he took a shot at US policy on Ukraine as a distraction from America’s domestic woes, zeroing in on what is a sore point for many swing voters – immigration.
“You have issues on the border, issues with migration, issues with the national debt,” he told Carlson. “You have nothing better to do, so you should fight in Ukraine? Wouldn’t it be better to negotiate with Russia?”
The Russian president floated the idea that US foreign policy decisions had been captured by what he called “elites’ mindsets” and that while Trump may well change US policy towards Russia, it would only happen if the “elites change” too.
Carlson filled in the gap, echoing another of Trump’s key themes – the power of the “deep state”: “So, twice you’ve described US presidents making decisions and then being undercut by their agency heads. So, it sounds like you’re describing a system that is not run by the people who are elected, in your telling.”
Talking to an America in turmoil
The controversial interview comes at a time of great turmoil, in the US and internationally. Trump – for whom Carlson campaigned in the 2020 election campaign – faces a string of court cases, including some that could – if he’s convicted – see him imprisoned before the November 2024 presidential elections.
The US Supreme Court will also rule on whether Trump should be removed from the ballot altogether due to charges of insurrectionary conduct on January 6 2021. Congress also remains at loggerheads over providing further financial support to Ukraine.
Although he is likely to win the Republican presidential nomination, Trump faces a primary challenge from Nikki Haley, who now represents an important focal point of opposition to Trump the personality rather than to Trumpism the idea. Haley, former governor of South Carolina and Trump’s ambassador to the UN, is also a champion of US support for Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s military might – as is Joe Biden.
Biden – and Trump, as a matter of fact – campaigned on the idea of ending America’s “forever wars”. Yet the US is now embroiled in a series of conflicts in a global arc from Ukraine, through the Middle East, all the way to simmering tensions over Taiwan. All sorts of people are lining up to warn that the danger of another massive global conflict appears to be increasing.
There is no shortage of influential Americans on both sides of the political aisle who are saying the same thing. And a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association soon after Russia invaded Ukraine last year found that nearly seven in ten Americans feared “that we are at the beginning stages of World War III”.
So while Carlson and Trump are partisan Republicans, their stances on Russia, Putin, and the Ukraine war reflect a broader mood among much of the US public.
Some members of Trump’s 2017-2021 administration wanted to get closer to Russia to counter the rise of China – in a sort of “carrots-to-Russia and sticks-towards-China” approach.
There is also a growing bipartisan voice in Washington. This is reflected in the emergence of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank funded by billionaire conservative Charles Koch and billionaire liberal internationalist George Soros, which is championing a retreat from interventionism, or “restraint”, by the US.
Carlson’s interview with Putin will not change the minds of committed partisans on either side. But for those who for the first time heard an extended argument in the Russian leader’s own words, the interview, while long and sometimes rambling, probably humanized Putin. He came over as historically knowledgeable, articulate, serious, and sober. And very determined in the rightness of his cause.
Inderjeet Parmar is Professor in International Politics, City, University of London.