Call Their Bluff: How the Putin Interview can Help Ukraine

*The views expressed here are the author’s own, expressed in his personal capacity. 

Tucker Carlson’s 9 February 2024 interview with Vladimir Putin has been widely panned as obsequious and unenlightening. Certainly, since even before Russia’s February 2022 invasion, Carlson has consistently sought to undermine US, EU, NATO and G7 support for Ukraine, including by lambasting Ukrainian leaders, delegitimising Ukrainian democracy itself and advocating other pro-Kremlin talking points—not to mention by promoting far-right European politicians like Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Santiago Abascal and foremost Viktor Orbán. In this sense, the recent interview followed a predictable script, with Carlson several times essentially inviting the Russian president to confirm Carlson’s own anti-Biden, anti-woke, anti-neocon and anti-establishment views. Calling this out is surely fair.

And yet we should also not underestimate the value of the interview’s content or its potential for good effect. First, for instance, regarding insight: at roughly the 1:22:00 mark, Carlson—who has long framed the war as a proxy conflict between the US and Russia, disregarding Ukrainian or European agency—asked about the global implications of Russia’s actions, in particular given the rise of China and the risk of a new Russian dependency even less welcome than Putin’s longstanding sense of Western encroachment. Carlson here channelled a widely held American conviction: that the war in Ukraine is ultimately important—insofar as it is important—not just, or even mainly, because of the importance of European stability or of US-Russia relations per se but rather within the context of an emerging order defined increasingly by a new zero-sum, cold-war paradigm featuring the US and China as prime antagonists. Rather than challenge Carlson’s framing here, Putin instead played the part of China’s consigliere: touting China’s ‘foreign-policy philosophy’ as ‘not aggressive’ and advising the US and others not to continue acting ‘to [their] own detriment’ but to simply make their peace with China’s trajectory of predominance.

Carlson, since the launch of his primetime Fox News show in November 2016 (he was fired in April 2023), has arguably been, after Trump himself, MAGA-nation’s most cutting-edge provocateur. Trump has no doubt carefully attended the Putin interview and its fallout. What might that conversation signal about a Trump 2.0’s foreign policy? Trump has of course long undermined support for Ukraine and pilloried ‘delinquent’ NATO allies; at a campaign stop on 10 February, he said he would even ‘encourage’ Russia to have its way, with impunity, with such false (former) friends. And on China? Despite his tough talk—including threats of much higher tariffs—Trump continues to praise Xi Jinping and hedge on defending Taiwan. Would he in the end throw not just Ukraine or other NATO allies but also Taiwan under the bus—ostensibly to protect American jobs or further rally his isolationist base? Was Putin even, in the exchange noted above, purposefully floating for Trump just such a face-saving about-face on China—in the guise of a newly quiescent global order centred again, predictably, around great powers’ spheres of influence?      

Paradoxically, given Carlson’s Putinversteher persona, the interview has also offered something besides mere insight, though: an opening for a new democratic push for Ukraine. Throughout the conversation, Putin dared past or present Western leaders (of the US, UK, Germany, France and Poland, especially, and of course of Ukraine itself) to contradict his version of key events. Carlson, for his part, presented himself as an ingenuous journalist seeking to understand and convey all sides of the conflict. (He says he wants an interview with Zelensky too.) Why not call both Putin’s and Carlson’s bluff? Why not propose—and arrange—say, that Carlson interview former US Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, former German Chancellor Merkel or former British Prime Minister Johnson: all key to policy decisions Putin believes have corroded the post-Cold-War peace? The terms for such talks should of course be identical to Putin’s: they should follow the same uncut format, and Carlson should maintain the same conciliatory tone and open docility. Were Carlson to comply, he might in turn expect more interviews, per the same conditions, with current leaders like Polish Prime Minister Tusk, German Chancellor Scholz or French President Macron, not to mention Presidents Zelensky or Biden themselves.  

Would this not reward Carlson for ignorance or bad faith? It would. Or could Carlson be expected to honour good-faith commitments to fairness in interviewing other leaders—or at least to showing them no less deference than that shown to an authoritarian with little-to-no democratic or media accountability? This seems unlikely, given Carlson’s history and temperament. But even such a spectacle, in itself, would provide an instructive, and discrediting, parallel. At any rate, surely the case for Ukraine is compelling enough to take the risk—especially since current efforts are proving unable to stem a slow erosion of voters’ faith that military, economic or even political support for Ukraine should keep flowing.

Time is short. Ukraine urgently needs shells and cash. The US House of Representatives may fail to approve the Senate’s $61-billion aid package for 2024. An extended debate—holding Carlson accountable to his own precedent—would give reputable journalists new information to fact-check and report. Ultimately, it would galvanise a new national and transatlantic conversation, with voters at the centre. Could die-hard MAGA voters be swayed even in face of what would likely remain Trump’s own intransigence? Far from certain, indeed—but success is more likely by trying than by carrying on as before and hoping for the best.    

One last point. Engaging Carlson’s self-professed search for the truth on Ukraine would also represent another powerful dare: to Putin, to allow all such interviews with past or present leaders to air, uncensored, on Russian media. Carlson’s new interlocutors could of course speak directly not just to American or European sceptics who trust Carlson as a source—and who make up essential, and growing, electorates in many Western countries—but, too, to disenfranchised Russians told for years that Carlson and populists like him are the aggrieved oracles of Western decay. Why not rather newly engage him—engage them—with the strong case for Ukraine? They are listening.