AMAC Exclusive – By Walter Samuel
Future generations of historians will owe Tucker Carlson a debt of thanks, as his interview with Vladimir Putin is far more of a historical primary source than a political document, and one which can be of immeasurable use to policymakers today, provided they understand what it is and is not.
As a source for information on Ukraine and Russian relations with the West, Putin’s commentary is interesting, but ultimately of limited value. As an insight into Putin’s thought process, and how Russian policy is formulated, however, Tucker’s interview with the Russian leader is invaluable. Understanding Putin’s theory of history, especially the passivity with which he views Russia’s role – as the victim of events and the actions of others rather than a protagonist itself – will be key to any policy the West might formulate toward Russia.
That viewers received the product we did seems to have come as a surprise to all involved.
Tucker Carlson may well have gone in expecting Putin to make his case to the American people, and it is clear that Carlson’s critics feared exactly that. The viciousness of the attacks on the very idea that Carlson would interview the Russian president were invariably linked with concerns that Putin would use the opportunity to spread propaganda which would undermine support for further military aid to Ukraine.
Leaving aside how fears that merely allowing Putin to present arguments against military aid to Ukraine implies an awareness among American leadership of the abysmal job they have done selling their own case to the American people, they need not have worried. Vladimir Putin was not interested in tailoring his words in order to make his case to the American swing voters, Tucker Carlson, or anyone else. Putin was speaking to history.
Putin’s interview has been widely mocked for the obsession the Russian president seemingly displayed with historical minutiae, and even Tucker himself seemed uncertain what Putin was seeking to accomplish. In a disclaimer at the start, Tucker admits that he and his team initially viewed Putin’s behavior as a form of filibuster, and “found it annoying,” prompting efforts to interrupt and put Putin “back on track,” efforts the Russian President also found annoying. At one point, Putin asked Tucker whether he wanted “a show or a serious discussion.”
It might be tempting, especially for those already predisposed to hostility to the Russian leader, to dismiss Putin’s actions as the sign of an autocrat who has gone mad with power. It seems more likely that Putin was taking advantage of the interview, but not in the way Tucker or his critics expected or feared. The Russian president saw this as a chance to ensure that his version of history would be told.
Vladimir Putin is an old man. Not as old as Joe Biden, and as the contrast between this interview and the Special Counsel’s interview with Biden indicates, much more lucid. But Putin clearly seems aware that almost his entire life lies behind him, and what is now taking place is merely an epilogue to what came before.
Putin may not have time to draft a memoir, and based on comments during the interview, clearly does not believe he has any way to get it fairly distributed in the West. His successors might then destroy any manuscript. He could have, of course, given this sort of interview on Russian TV, but the Russian people know his story, and that would have faded into archives. Tucker presented Putin with the chance to create a historical testimony with relevance to the West.
That testimony was less academic history and more more akin to a memoir or a court affidavit in the sense that it was designed to tell a story that the author believes to be true, and was vigorously researched and cited.
Unlike an academic history, Putin did not consider multiple interpretations of events, a plethora of motives for the actors involved, and reconcile facts which do not seem to fit. He knows what he thinks the truth is, and believes the facts support it. Therefore, he provides only one explanation for every event, and often seems remarkably uninterested in the motives of anyone else, most famously responding to repeated efforts by Tucker to explain why he thinks Western leaders behave a certain way with the suggestion Westerners should “ask their leaders.” In Putin’s view, any facts which undermine the story he believes to be true must be irrelevant.
For instance, we can probably take at face value that Putin wished to “move on” as he put it, from the Balkan conflicts after taking power, and tested Western resolve by asking whether Russia could join NATO. It is also likely true he received a negative response, which he interpreted as confirmation of Western hostility, and a personal rebuff. However, in the interview, Putin is mum on whether he held any actual interest in joining NATO or was merely on a fishing expedition, and all but admits no serious proposals were presented on logistics.
Presented with a hypothetical inquiry from Putin which may have been conveyed in jest, accompanied by no concrete proposals, or evidence Russia actually wanted to join NATO, it is easy to see why Western leaders would let drop an issue that would have required an extensive rewriting of their security structures. There is no reason to believe from Putin’s own words in the interview that he ever conveyed a real desire for Russia to join NATO, even if he believes a door was slammed in his face.
The same skepticism should be applied to three major components of his Ukraine policy.
The first is his complaint that there was no need for the CIA/Western powers to overthrow Yanukovych in 2014, after the Ukrainian president had agreed to appoint an opposition government and call early elections he was certain to lose. Putin is likely correct here. The overthrow of Yanukovych after he had made the agreement was unnecessary from the perspective of everyone’s interests, including those of the United States, and with hindsight it has had catastrophic consequences.
This is why it so curious that Putin seems to have given next to zero thought as to why it happened or even whether it did. For Putin, the CIA and United States overthrew Yanukovych when it served no purpose, after they had agreed not to do so. It does not appear to have occurred to Putin that this might be evidence not for irrational self-defeating hostility, but for incompetence. The Obama administration and E.U. lost control of their own supporters, and as in Syria, Libya, and Egypt, may have preferred to claim credit for things they had been too negligent to stop rather than admit their own powerlessness. Putin presents no evidence of deliberate involvement when he had the chance to do so during the interview, perhaps because he does not have any, or possibly because he felt no need. The idea that the CIA was not behind everything is inconceivable to him, so what good would evidence be when “everyone knows?”
Similarly, the interview segment about the Minsk 1 and 2 agreements is informative, not least because Putin, by telling Tucker he was willing to implement them, concedes that he did not do so. In short, Putin signed agreements not with the intention of complying with his written word, but potentially doing so if other conditions were met.
At best, by suggesting that none of the parties had much intention of following through, this demolishes the case that the West undermined the agreements. At worst, it implies negotiating with Putin is pointless as he so thoroughly expects bad faith that Russia preemptively will assume the right to violate agreements on day one.
Finally, the interview segment on the Istanbul negotiations between Ukraine and Russia suffers immensely from Putin’s habit of outsourcing blame to outside forces while displaying total indifference to their motives. Putin seems to imply that a near full agreement had been reached, only for the British to torpedo it.
Putin neglects to speculate why the British would do so, or why Ukraine would go along with British demands. This is particularly suspicious when Putin declines to offer Ukraine any terms for negotiations when prompted several times by Tucker, suggesting the problem is a law against such talks.
There are grounds for suspicion that we are not getting the entire story, and that the Istanbul talks ran aground on terms Putin is unwilling to disclose even now. Or, just as concerning, it is possible that Putin has yet to settle on precisely what he wants from this conflict.
What comes through on these topics, and dozens of others over the more than two-hour interview, is a version of history in which Putin was at once a protagonist, but a not particularly important one.
For Putin, it was on the United States and its allies, not himself, to formulate concrete proposals for Russia to enter NATO when he expressed vague interest in the idea. In Ukraine in 2014, the United States had the exclusive duty to control the actions of all parties, even though Russia helped precipitate the crisis. When it came to the Minsk Agreements, it was up to the West to implement them. If the West did so, he was willing to. Finally, it is up to others to come up with proposals for peace in Ukraine now.
As it goes for Vladimir Putin, so it goes for Russia. Throughout his historical lectures, we are told that Russia does not make history, history happens to Russia. The Varangians and Mongols arrived, the Poles and Lithuanians advanced, Ukrainian nationalism developed based on foreign influences, and World War II occurred because mystical forces caused the Poles and Nazis to fail to come to a deal.
It will be up to future historians to determine the truth of whether Putin is more a villain or victim of history. Current policymakers, however, should take one key insight from the Tucker Carlson interview: It is not what Putin thinks about Poland, Mongols, or even Ukraine and NATO that matters. Rather, it is that Putin perceives himself as weak, as someone who does not make policy but is forced into it. He was forced into hostility to the West, non-compliance with Minsk, pulling out of Istanbul, and now into allying with China to counter the United States and undermine the U.S. Dollar. Everything is someone else’s fault.
What this means is that Putin can be “forced” into things, but will never take the initiative. For Putin to be forced into a compromise in Ukraine by Western support would be just another chapter in the personal and national history he provided.
Waiting for Putin to formulate terms, propose them, and implement them in the event of military success is an idea so foreign that the Russian president has clearly not contemplated it. Putin made clear repeatedly he will not propose terms, and expects them to be brought to him, whether in his demand Ukraine repeal its purported law against negotiations, or his refusal to provide Tucker with answers.
If there is going to be any sort of end to the war in Ukraine, America and its allies are going to have to do the work. Putin’s is content to let it happen, and then comment on it later.
Walter Samuel is the pseudonym of a prolific international affairs writer and academic. He has worked in Washington as well as in London and Asia, and holds a Doctorate in International History.