Interview to Tucker Carlson: the context and reality behind Russia’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine

[Vladimir Putin’s] Interview to Tucker Carlson (Kremlin, 10 February 2024)

Former Fox News journalist / political commentator / writer Tucker Carlson became the first Western reporter to interview Russian President Vladimir Putin in February 2024 since Russia began its Special Military Operation in Ukraine in February 2022. The interview lasted just over two hours and was notable for its first half hour in which Putin gave a brief history lecture to a rather stunned Carlson on Russia’s development as a sovereign nation from the time it began in 862 when Slavic princes in Novgorod, a city in northwestern Russia, invited Varangians to help keep order among them by governing as kings. The point of Putin’s exposition on Russia’s historical development was to emphasise that Ukraine as a political and historical entity, independent of the nations around it, is actually recent and artificial, and that the people currently designated as Ukrainians (that is, those people living in post-Soviet Ukraine from 1991 onwards) are actually a mix of ethnic groups and nationalities clumped together as a result of a series of decisions made by past Russian and Soviet rulers over the past 370+ years since Bohdan Khmelnytsky and his fellow Cossack officers rebelled against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and established an independent Cossack hetmanate state. The Cossacks rejected Polish Roman Catholic control over Orthodox clergy in Eastern Slav lands and Polonisation of Eastern Slav cultures and dialects. In 1654, Khmelnytsky signed the Pereyaslav Agreement with the Tsarist government in Moscow, and from there the hetmanate came more and more under the influence and control of the Russian empire. The Russo-Polish War (1654 – 1667) weakened the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and left it vulnerable to partition by the Austrian empire, Prussia and Russia in the following century.

The idea of Ukraine being an independent nation apparently originated with, and was cultivated by, Austria in the late 19th century as a way of weakening Russia and splitting off the lands in southeastern Europe that were part of the Russian empire. However, after World War I, the Russian Revolution and the later Russian Civil War, the borders between Poland and Russia were established at the Dnepr River. World War II saw another change in the borders of Poland and western Ukraine, with much of what is now northwestern Ukraine (eastern Galicia, eastern Volhynia) going to the Soviet Union and incorporated into Soviet Ukraine. At that point, Putin emphasised to Carlson that various Soviet leaders had attached territories inhabited by Russian-speaking peoples to Soviet Ukraine for reasons that he, Putin, did not know.

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and the various Soviet republics, including Ukraine, declared independence or had independence thrust upon them. Through the 1990s, Russia under President Boris Yeltsin trusted that the West would respect Russia’s interests in Eastern Europe and Ukraine in particular by not extending NATO membership to former Soviet block nations and Soviet republics: in this, the Russians were to be disappointed, as NATO expanded farther east to include the Baltic republics. The US bombing of Serbia, and of Belgrade in particular, in 1996 finally forced the Russians to realise that they could never be equal partners with the West. Despite this, when Vladimir Putin became President of Russia in 2000, his government tried again and again to negotiate with the US and other Western nations, particularly those of the European Union, as equals to raise the issue of Russian security interests in Eastern Europe and in Ukraine. Despite Moscow’s endeavours, the West and the US in particular continued to intervene in Ukrainian politics, by promoting politicians with pro-Western leanings, installing their own people or people from the North American Ukrainian diaspora into Ukrainian government positions, and making promises of EU and NATO membership to Ukraine. Finally, in 2013, when the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych requested more time to consider the fine print of a proposed EU-Ukraine agreement (in which Ukraine would agree to reform its economy and standards to EU expectations, even though EU membership was not guaranteed after such reform), opposition groups in Ukraine, encouraged by the West, began organising and staging large-scale protests in Kiev’s Maidan square in late 2013 / early 2014. These protests culminated in sniper attacks on crowds in February 2014 and led to a putsch against Yanukovych. Yanukovych fled to Russia and the opposition took power.

After the putsch, Kiev began various moves against Ukraine’s Russian-speaking populations in Crimea and the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. Through a referendum, Crimea declared its independence and was accepted into the Russian Federation. A civil war was begun by Kiev in the Donbass region in mid-2014. Such events and others, along with the Minsk II agreements and the failure of France and Germany to compel Ukraine to adhere to the conditions of those agreements, and the growth of the Ukrainian armed forces close to the ceasefire line between the breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk republics and the rest of Ukraine, set the context in which Russia eventually initiated its Special Military Operation in 2022.

Much of the rest of the interview involved Putin explaining relations between the Russian and the US governments and Russia’s openness to negotiations to stop the fighting with Ukraine, if the US were interested in peace and not prolonging the war. The interview touched on the destruction of the Nordstream pipelines, who was responsible for the bombing, and the peculiar response of the German government to the bombing and its failure to open the one remaining undamaged pipeline to obtain cheap Russian gas. Carlson and Putin also discussed the nature of Russian-Chinese relations, with Putin pointing out that supposed Chinese domination of the BRICS countries is untrue, that Russia and China have good relations, and that China does not have an aggressive foreign policy. Later in the interview, Carlson and Putin came back to Ukraine and the peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul that Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky rejected at the urging of then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in April 2022. The interview concluded with Carlson raising the issue of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich’s imprisonment on espionage charges and Putin replying that talks with the US government have been under way to eventually return Gershkovich to his home country.

The way in which the interview unfolded as an in-depth conversation, giving necessary background and context to Russia’s Special Military Operation in Ukraine from the Russian point of view, and indeed the readiness of Putin to grant Carlson an interview, indicates that Moscow sees Carlson differently from most Western reporters and commentators, and already knew much about his worldview and his opinions on Ukrainian politics before he went to Russia. A joke that Putin makes at Carlson’s expense, in observing that Carlson had once tried to join the CIA (and the CIA rejected his application), shows that he and his staff had done their homework on his background; perhaps they also know that Carlson’s father once worked for “Voice of America”, an international radio broadcaster for the US. Moscow is also aware of the kind of audiences Carlson attracts and has attracted in the past, and the 30-minute history lesson is aimed at those people.

That the general Western news media reaction to the interview is extremely negative, with many commentators criticising Carlson’s apparent “failure” to ask “hard questions” of Putin and challenge / interrupt him constantly, may demonstrate jealousy, resentment and even panic that the Western general public may discover that Putin is an intelligent and rational politician compared to Western politicians, and not the emotional, egotistical monster he is made out to be. That politicians in the West have also reacted strongly and resentfully against the interview may also be a sign of panic on their part, that the interview may encourage and even generate more public opposition to Western governments and the elites those governments serve. Though the interview itself did not introduce anything new that those who follow alternative news media do not already know, over time the interview may take on significance in its own right as revealing to the general public the machinations of their own governments in destabilising Eastern Europe, and as a catalyst for protests and opposition to further Western funding and military supplies to Ukraine.

The interview can be watched at this link.