What Does Tucker Carlson’s Vladimir Putin Interview Mean for the Ukraine War?


What Does Tucker Carlson’s Vladimir Putin Interview Mean for the Ukraine War?

Whatever Carlson’s motivations, the interview has provided analysts with useful new data on the Russian president’s thinking.

The American conservative pundit Tucker Carlson made a major media splash earlier this month with an unexpected, two-hour-long interview sit-down with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. The Putin-Tucker interview, as well as subsequent video shorts highlighting the Moscow metro system and the workings of local grocery stores, quickly became fodder for meta-commentary on Tucker’s motives as well as the so-called “pro-Putin” or “pro-Russian” segment of the American political right. 

This ongoing conversation has partially obscured some of the most important takeaways from the interview itself, which provided a surprise window into the priorities and interests of the Russian president himself, two years into a bloody territorial war with Ukraine. Whatever Carlson’s motivations, the interview provided analysts with valuable new data on presidential thinking. Several points are of particular relevance here. 

First, it supported the thesis that the Russian president’s personal obsessions about history must be a central part of any argument about Putin’s decision to go to war in February 2022. Second, it highlighted the role of personal grievance and a sense of repeated snubbing as part of the president’s worldview as one of the globe’s most important and longstanding autocratic leaders. Third, it showcased an unusual lack of strategic message discipline in the Kremlin. Fourth and finally, Putin also provided some partial insight into the fraught question of a future negotiated settlement from the Russian perspective, albeit one that is deeply unpalatable and likely an impossible ask in the short term as the war continues into its third year. 

Personal Obsessions and “Putinsplaining” the Place of History 

The most important takeaway from the Tucker-Putin interview was the half-hour history lesson to which the Russian president subjected his interlocutor. Despite Tucker’s repeated efforts to shift the conversation to NATO enlargement as a core casus belli justification, Vladimir Putin made clear that this was not how he preferred to view the war. Rather, he provided an extended lesson in history from the Russian—and his own bespoke—perspective. Refusing to be interrupted, Putin even prepared set-piece documents for Tucker to review that supported his historical claims. For non-Russian speakers watching online, the first portion of the interview was wildly unexpected, providing a confusing and overly detailed narrative of East Slavic political history completely bereft of soundbites or even a clear thesis that could be understandably digested by the unfamiliar. 

What this unexpected discourse from Russia’s longtime dictator tells us is that the history component of the Russo-Ukrainian War is not just a point of legitimation among many but the key motivating factor for Vladimir Putin personally. This fits well with one interpretation of the war that has been given relatively short shrift compared to endless discussions of either NATO expansion or Ukrainian democracy as being the core reason for the war. 

Rather, we should understand that the proximate cause of the war was Vladimir Putin’s deepening historical obsessions, sense of personal grievance, and unique physical isolation, which allowed this to fester in the runup to 2022. This interview provides strong supporting data for that framing. Here, Putin makes clear—in dialogue with an American whom the Kremlin had correctly read as already sympathetic to Russian positions—that he is clearly motivated by historical concerns and that they sit at the center of what he wanted to communicate to an outside audience. 

This is especially relevant because the one variable that has changed over the course of Putin’s tenure has been his own meditations on history, ethnogenesis, and the legacies of Russian statehood. While NATO expansion has been a continual acrimonious point since the 1990s and pro-Western Ukrainian governments have always been an annoyance to Russia’s political leadership, it is not true that Putin has always talked in long rants about history to justify political action. However, this has become an increasing part of presidential rhetoric over the last several years, which tracks with Putin’s own sense of political destiny. The interview thus provided useful corroborative data that Putin’s personal obsessions are a key analytic tool to examine the causes of the Russo-Ukrainian War itself. 

Grievance and Personal Slights 

Of the emotions the Russian president conveyed during the interview, one of the strongest was a clear perception of snubbing, lack of respect, and double-dealing. In short, Vladimir Putin communicated a feeling of being consistently slighted by his fellow world leaders. Across the interview, we can find many anecdotes of him talking about the Bushes, various documents signed by the French and Germans, and diplomatic negotiations generally—all of which end with Russia not getting what was promised or expected. Throughout, a sense of grievance is palpable. 

This, of course, could be read simply as a post-hoc justification for Russia’s actions (i.e., the hypocrisy of the West), but what was mostly communicated, verbally and through body language, was something different. Putin himself feels slighted and does not understand why others do not see the world as clearly as he does. The constant asides highlighting his resentments give us a characterization of the Russian president who feels world-weary and disappointed more than anything. 

This is perhaps clearest as he goes through his interpretation of Ukrainian political history. Multiple times, he performatively notes that Ukrainian and Western politicians have made counterproductive and self-defeating choices. If only cooler heads prevailed, much of what has happened could have been avoided. In this way, what comes across is Putin, the veteran but frustrated politician, paternalistically attempting to explain why he is right, why he has been aggrieved, and why the other side has been stupid and shortsighted. The analyst does not need to agree with Russia’s seventy-one-year-old leader to identify this core emotion operating pervasively within his rhetoric. 

Strategic Messaging or Genuine Feeling? 

Finally, while some viewed the interview as a form of Kremlin information warfare, this is not well supported by the actual content and framing given by the Russian president. Putin clearly did not care to discuss hyper-controversial U.S. political issues. He threw red meat neither to MAGA nor an international audience of illiberal or West-skeptical types. 

And a corrective argument that this was targeted at the Russian audience also falls flat, given that Putin already treats the Russian population regularly to commentary in the same vein and not intermediated through an American media filter. Ultimately, the interview content was decisively focused on what Vladimir Putin himself thought rather than what he thought would sell best, either to foreign or domestic audiences. 

Indeed, we did not get anything about cancel culture, gender ideology, Biden being senile, or the United States being a kind of demonic hegemon that threatens global peace. Putin was actually quite circumspect on these counts—much more so than in other interviews and public speeches in the recent past. The Tucker-Putin interview was rather the Russian president as pedagogue-in-chief, trying to educate Tucker about history and how the world works from his perspective. The interview thus sits in a curious position as an artifact of Putin’s own worldview rather than any strategic or instrumental messaging program.  

Hinting at the Future 

Finally, the Tucker-Putin interview also gave us a very partial window into how the Russian president may view a future negotiated settlement to the war, although one that is unlikely to be actionable or acceptable in the immediate term. The most set-up part of the interview (aside from the archival documents) was a point about secret negotiations in the spring of 2022, which Putin argued were scuppered by Boris Johnson. In doing so, he suggested that instead of losing the Battle of Kyiv, it was part of a negotiation cut short by Johnson’s intervention. We do not need to take this at face value, per se, but it suggests Putin thinks of himself as ready and willing to negotiate—of course, only on terms he views as “reasonable” however defined.

This is important to keep in mind, especially as Putin seems quite confident the war is going well enough that he can just wait for negotiations. Indeed, we can tentatively speculate about Russian war goals given this discussion. The Russian president seems to think he is open to negotiations if only the other side is willing to talk reasonably. Given Russia’s stated claims that already-annexed southeastern Ukrainian territory in the war is now an integral part of the Russian state, this means that any such negotiation would settle on the partition of Ukraine at a minimum. Coupled with Putin’s continued use of the “denazification” euphemism, it suggests both partition and a “neutral” Ukrainian government as a kind of de facto political satrapy or vassalage is Russia’s preferred outcome. 

Suffice it to say, this is an obvious non-starter for Ukrainian politicians and their Western allies and partners today. The war would need to take a much worse turn for Ukraine before that is on the table. But it does underline a set of acting Russian war assumptions. Namely, they believe they can simply wait things out. They may be unclear about whether they can get a complete satrapy out of this or move Russian forces all the way to Kyiv. But they certainly think they can keep what they have now while increasing costs to gain even more in negotiations. Barring a massive change in the war, Russia is more likely to end up with just partition rather than partition and vassalage. But that will be determined on the battlefield, as well as by the interests of European and U.S. leaders.