The trouble with aging authoritarians is not that nobody dares tell them they are wrong. It’s that nobody ever tells them they are tiresome.
Yes, as Tucker Carlson’s big interview in Moscow finally dropped online tonight, the world learned that Vladimir Putin is, among other things, an almighty history bore. He just cannot be stopped.
Following all the controversy and intrigue about what might be said, Putin managed to smother the excitement of the interview under an iron curtain of his own autodidactism. It was impressive, in a mind-numbing way.
Carlson began the interview with a fair question: “On February 22, 2022, you addressed your country in a nationwide address when the conflict in Ukraine started, and you said that you were acting because you had come to the conclusion that the United States, through NATO might initiate a, quote, ‘surprise attack’ on our country and to American ears, that sounds paranoid. Tell us why you believe the United States might strike Russia out of the blue. How did you conclude that?”
“Are we having a talk show or a serious conversation?” replied Putin, taking wry umbrage at Carlson’s directness. “Your basic education is in history, as far as I understand,” he added, showing he’d done a bit of homework of his own. “So if you don’t mind, I will take only thirty seconds or one minute to give you a short reference to history to give you a little historical background.”
One minute? That was the first lie. The president then launched into a potted, meandering, twenty-plus minute history of Ukraine, Russia, Poland and Lithuania, from 862 AD onwards.
Poor Tucker! A less polite man might have aggressively interrupted his interviewee, but would that have stopped Vlad, the intellectual impaler? Would it heck! Tucker mumbled a couple of times about not understanding how the extended lecture was “relevant.” “I understand that my long speech is falling out of the genre of the interview… so bear with me please,” Putin said, faux-modestly. Then he went on, and on, and on.
About eighteen minutes in, Carlson almost burst out laughing at the absurdity when Putin said, “Even we go back to 1654…”
“1654,” Carlson interjected. “You obviously have encyclopedic knowledge of this region.” Flattery would get him nowhere, though, and the interviewer got another disquisition on Bolsheviks and Ukrainization for his troubles.
After that, Carlson’s patience appeared almost to be snapping. “Have you told Viktor Orbán that he can have part of Ukraine?” he tried. “Never,” replied Putin.
Finally, we were getting somewhere, sort of. Putin went into a slightly less obtuse monologue about NATO expansion. He described some of his conversations with Bill Clinton about joining the alliance: “If he had said yes, the process of rapprochement would have commenced, and eventually it might have happened.” He also talked about Bush I and Bush II (“such a tough guy”) and the way his diplomatic initiatives with America’s leadership had been derailed.
“You’re clearly bitter about it,” said Carlson, courageously.
“No, it’s not bitterness,” said Putin. “It’s just the statement of fact. We’re not bride and groom, bitterness, resentment, it’s not about those kind of matters in such circumstance.”
After forty minutes, Carlson wrenched conversation back to the war today in Ukraine. “We did not start this war in 2022,” said Putin. “This is an attempt to stop it.”
“Do you think you’ve stopped it now?” asked Carlson. “I mean, have you achieved your aims?”
“No. We haven’t achieved our aims yet because one of them is denazification.” Putin then began another history sermon about how, after conflict with Poland, post-war Ukraine began developing neo-Nazi strands.
“Would you be satisfied with the territory that you have now?” asked Carlson, trying to get back to the point, but Putin wanted to talk more about Nazis, and he evaded the question.
The first really dynamic moment came an hour and eleven minutes in, when Carlson asked who blew up the Nordstream pipelines in the Baltic Sea? The exchange is worth quoting in full:
Carlson: I was busy that day. I did not blow up Nord Stream. Thank you though.
Putin:You personally may have an alibi, but the CIA has no such alibi.
Carlson: Did you have evidence that NATO or the CIA did it?
Putin: You know, I won’t get into details, but people always say in such cases, look for someone who is interested. But in this case, we should not only look for someone who is interested, but also for someone who has capabilities, because there may be many people interested, but not all of them are capable of sinking to the bottom of the Baltic Sea and carrying out this explosion. These two components should be connected. Who is interested and who is capable of doing it?
Carlson: But I’m confused. I mean, that’s the biggest act of industrial terrorism ever, and it’s the largest emission of CO2 in history. OK, so if you had evidence, and presumably given your security services or intel services, you would, that Nato, the US, CIA, the West did this, why wouldn’t you present it and win a propaganda victory?
Putin: In the war of propaganda, it is very difficult to defeat the United States because the United States controls all the world’s media and many European media. The ultimate beneficiary of the biggest European media are American financial institutions. Don’t you know that? So it is possible to get involved in this work, but it is cost-prohibitive, so to speak. We can simply shine the spotlight on our sources of information and we will not achieve results. It is clear to the whole world what happened then. Even American analysts talk about it directly. It’s true.
The second hour of the interview was far more interesting and revealing, though most ADHD-addled internet users ought to be forgiven for not getting there. The two men discussed, among other subjects, China’s relationship with Russia, the power of dollar as a “tool of foreign policy” and the possibility of peace between Kyiv and Moscow. “We have never refused negotiations,” said Putin, blaming our very own Boris Johnson for persuading Zelensky to refuse to sign an agreement. “Where is Mr. Johnson now?” said Putin, coldly. “And the war continues.”
Carlson asked about Putin’s Orthodox faith, in an attempt to get an insight into his soul. Putin, naturally, started talking about how “in 988, Prince Vladimir himself was baptized following the example of his grandmother, Princess Olga…”
“Jesus says, turn the other cheek,” Carlson pressed on. “Don’t kill. How can a leader who has to kill — of any country — how can a leader be a Christian? How do you reconcile that to yourself?”
“It is very easy,” said Putin, “when it comes to protecting oneself and one’s family, one’s homeland.” And he then went back to repeating his line that he didn’t start the war.
Carlson asked if Putin would consider releasing Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter who has been in prison in Russia for a year: “I just want to ask you directly… if, as a sign of your decency, you would be willing to release him to us and we’ll bring him back to the United States.”
Putin puffed out his cheeks in what was meant to be an outward and visible sign of feeling, then said: “We have done so many gestures of goodwill out of decency that I think we have run out of them.” He suggested perhaps the US and Russian secret services would come to some agreement, then insisted, against Carlson’s pleading, that Gershkovich was engaged in espionage not journalism.
The interview ended with a slightly-more-frank-yet-still-tragically-vague discussion of how the Ukrainian conflict might be resolved. Putin suggested the West might be now be prepared to accept that Ukraine’s victory “is impossible.”
“Would you be willing to say ‘congratulations, NATO, you won’ and just keep the situation where it is now?” asked Carlson hopefully.
“It is a subject matter for the negotiations,” Putin replied, before turning maudlin: “It would be funny if it were not so sad that this endless mobilization in Ukraine, the hysteria, the domestic problems, sooner or later it will result in an agreement. You know, this probably sounds strange given the current situation. But the relations between the two peoples will be rebuilt anyway. It will take a lot of time, but they will heal. I’ll give you very unusual examples. There is a combat encounter on the battlefield. Here is a specific example. Ukrainian soldiers get encircled. This is an example from real life. Our soldiers were shouting to them. ‘There is no chance. Surrender yourselves. Come out and you will be alive.’ Suddenly the Ukrainian soldiers were screaming from there in Russian. Perfect Russian. Saying, ‘Russians do not surrender.’ And all of them perished.”
Not Vladimir’s fault at all, you understand, all this heroic Slavic perishing. Putin concluded: “Why are the Ukrainian authorities dismantling the Ukrainian Orthodox Church? Because it brings together not only the territory. It brings together our souls. No one will be able to separate the soul.”
There ended the lesson. Nobody will move Putin’s soul, it seems.