Vladimir Milov

Free Russia Foundation Vice President for International Advocacy

Feb 17, 2024
Vladimir Putin’s interview to Tucker Carlson. Not as harmless as it may seem at first glance

Of course, it is hard to expect that many average Americans would want to listen in detail to boring and bizarre historic rants by an aged dictator—which is why many dismissed the interview as unimpressive. It really is, but don’t forget: we live in a post-truth world, where an average voter won’t even have to actually listen to it: many right-wing commentators would offer a shortened interpretation, which will be much more readily consumed by ordinary Americans. “You don’t need to watch the 2-hour interview, I’ve done it for you—and let me tell you something, Putin’s arguments against Western support for Ukraine are fairly convincing” —this is what many right-wing commentators will have to say. And many among their audiences would buy it.

To this end, Putin’s lengthy and bizarre interventions on history may even be to his advantage, paradoxically. There’s a classic rhetorical tactic, which is quite often used by Kremlin propaganda outlets: to overwhelm listeners with excessive—and often irrelevant or distorted—details, creating an impression that the speaker has thorough knowledge of many underlying facts. Average viewer often has no idea who Rurik or Bogdan Khmelnitskiy were, so when Putin names so many specific references to historic dates and events, he must know better, mustn’t he? Many have mocked the trick with bringing copies of Bogdan Khmelnitskiy letters into the room—but this was done exactly for that purpose, to create an impression for an unsophisticated viewer that Putin’s position is “based on some real historical documents”. For many of those in the U.S., who want the Western support to Ukraine to be discontinued, this will be enough excuse: see, Putin has some “facts” to back his position, who knows what really happened during all these ages between Russia and Ukraine, let’s leave it to themselves and not interfere, an average American might think. Encouraging this type of thinking was exactly Putin’s goal. 

It works quite well for the Russian domestic propaganda: many Russian people don’t want to be bothered by too many details, they tend to believe the officials who claim to know the nuances better; it may also work for the Americans, particularly when Putin’s talking points will be amplified by the hard right.

Putin’s interview to Carlson in this regard is most likely not a standalone event, but a launch of a full-scale propaganda campaign aimed at average American voters, with one clear message: forget about Ukraine, you in the U.S. don’t know all the nuances, leave it to Russia’s mercy. This message may resonate with many of those who share selfish, isolationist views on the U.S. foreign policy.

What is required in this situation is not mockery of Putin’s bizarre statements and behavior, but a serious counter-propaganda effort aimed at explaining to broad audiences why Putin is wrong, and his statements don’t stand to minimum scrutiny. There are many points to address, but two appear to be the most important.

First, whatever Putin says about history is primitive cherry-picking. He focuses on the facts and interpretations which he likes, but completely ignores those which don’t fit into his propaganda construct. True, Bogdan Khmelnitskiy was seeking a Union with Russia in the XVII century. But this Union was agreed upon a condition of Ukraine’s significant political and cultural autonomy—the Hetmanate,—which was abruptly abolished by Ekatherine the Second in 1764, with subsequent brutal actions aimed at destruction of Ukraine’s national identity, culture, language, and forced russification of Ukrainians. This example clearly shows that imperial Russia is not to be trusted: when certain nations want to establish an alliance with it basing on mutual respect and retaining its sovereignty, Russian imperialists would use it to establish control, and later subjugate and destroy them. But you won’t hear that from Putin.

Second, the modern-day rules-based international order rejects the idea of forced takeover of lands because they were historically controlled by someone else ages ago. Most of our territories were controlled by someone else in the past. In times of Rurik, with whom Putin began his lengthy rant in a Tucker Carlson interview, North America was controlled by Native Americans, and Americans of European descent were simply non-existent. In the times of Bogdan Khmelnitskiy, the United States was a British colony. Do we really want to go back that far? Redrawing international borders using history as a justification is a dangerous road that may exacerbate major global conflicts. According to Pew Research poll of 2020, many residents of Western countries say that parts of neighboring countries belong to them: the number went from 19-25% in the U.S. and Canada to as high as 67% in Hungary and 60% in Greece.

This is why the current international rules-based order protects the internationally recognized borders of countries, and forbids their forced redrawing, disregarding who owned which lands historically. Military land grabs are clearly defined as aggression by the U.N. Charter, and the Russian aggression against Ukraine was clearly defined by the international community as just that (United Nations General Assembly Resolution ES‑11/1): about three quarters of the U.N. General Assembly member states voted to qualify Russia’s actions as an act of unprovoked aggression, with only 5 countries, including Russia itself, its puppet states Belarus and Syria, plus North Korean and Eritrean dictatorships, voting against. It’s as clear as it can be: Russian war against Ukraine is an unprovoked aggression and a standard attempt for a military land grab, regardless of Putin’s attempts to justify it with distorted historical facts.

Aggressions are dangerous for global stability. If Putin’s logic becomes normalized—as attempted by Tucker Carlson,—then it means it would be OK for countries to attack others basing on some historical claims. The world would then plunge into the chaos of multiple revisionist wars, which will have a direct impact on the U.S. security. Russian aggression is more than just an attack on Ukraine: it is a brazen attempt to restore medieval reality, where might made right. Russia’s attack against Ukraine has already awaken many dictators around the world, which took it as a sign that it is a new normal to attack their neighbors: Hamas attacked Israel, Venezuela’s Maduro threatens to attack Guyana claiming “historic” territorial ambitions, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un claims that peaceful unification with South Korea no longer possible, effectively threatening South Korea with a war. Lest one forgot, there’s a never-ending military threat to Taiwan by mainland Communist China.

If Putin’s way of thinking (“we have a right for an aggression, because something happened centuries ago”) prevails, the world will be dragged into a multitude of dangerous conflicts, and to think that the U.S. will be able to avoid it and concentrate on the issues at the border with Mexico is beyond naive. Putin’s blatant attempt to reshape international rules-based order should be stopped outright—or it’s going to cost the United States much more. This should be explained to an average American voter in detail.

Interestingly, Putin doesn’t even pretend to hide his real aggressive motives by openly justifying Adolf Hitler’s actions to start World War II—he explicitly defended Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, basically saying that it is Poland which is to blame, because it “provoked” Hitler by not agreeing to concede part of its territory. Such a shocking justification of Hitler’s actions comes at the same page with false accusations of democratic Ukraine as a “Nazi state”.

These are not the only hair-raising discrepancies in Putin’s interview to Tucker Carlson (who hasn’t challenged him on all these absurdities even once). Putin rants about Russia’s “historic” rights to claim Ukrainian lands on the background of the 2004 Russian law ratifying the 2003 border treaty with Ukraine—fully recognizing Ukraine’s 1991 internationally defined borders!—still being a fully valid Russian legislative act. Putin says that Russia put an ultimatum in 2013 to Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich that Russia would withdraw from a free-trade union with Ukraine should it ratify Association Agreement with the European Union—but Russia at the same time had a valid roadmap with the EU for creating a Common Economic Space! Putin says about the democratic authorities of Ukraine: “they launched a war in Donbass in 2014, using aircraft and artillery against civilians”. But the first leaders of the so-called breakaway Donetsk Peoples Republic (self-appointed “prime minister” Alexandr Boroday and “defence minister” Igor Girkin-Strelkov who seized power in Donetsk in Spring 2014) are both Russian citizens born in Moscow, with no relation to Donbass and its civilians whatsoever!

These Putin’s claims don’t stand a minimum scrutiny—this is but a collection of random reality-distorting statements aimed to cover up an unprovoked aggression against Ukraine.

However, many American viewers couldn’t care less, which is why the interview may have some impact—as said above, particularly being amplified by the U.S. right-wing commentators. A different attempt of Russian interference in the U.S. elections this time: not through trolls, but through direct messaging by Putin conveyed by hard-right U.S. personalities. Aim: to increase opposition to further aid to Ukraine by the U.S. public opinion.

This is serious. It should be confronted. Debunking Putin’s lies about his war against Ukraine is essential to win the hearts and minds of the voters in the U.S. and beyond.