February 9, 2024 - 11:45am

After days of being called a “traitor”, including by former US Congressmen, for conducting it, Tucker Carlson’s interview with Vladimir Putin premiered late yesterday evening.

Spanning more than two hours, the interview largely addresses Putin’s perspective on the war with Ukraine. Taken together, it reveals not so much a convergence between the American “dissident” Right and the Russian leader: on the contrary, interviewer and interviewee have quite distinct axes to grind. Rather, it offers a window into two contemporary counters to the dominant Western liberal worldview: the Putinist narrative, and that of the post-liberal American Right.

Far from being a Russian shill or “useful idiot”, Carlson has his own angles on the Ukraine war and US involvement, and on several occasions seeks agreement on these themes from Putin — only for such overtures to be largely brushed aside. One of his questions touches on a recurring theme of “dissident” Right-wing commentary in the US, that their country is now run by a “deep state” unaccountable to the people:

So twice you’ve described US presidents making decisions and then being undercut by their agency heads. So it sounds like you’re describing a system that’s not run by the people who are elected.
- Tucker Carlson

While Putin does not disagree, he is uninterested in this theme and moves swiftly on to Russia’s perceived betrayal by “the collective West” on Nato expansion. Nor is he concerned with the location of America’s power centres, dismissing the country as having an opaque political system, before again pivoting to the unfairness of Russia’s treatment by these obscure decision-making bodies.

Ultimately, the axes Carlson wants to grind seemingly concern the replacement of American democracy by something more occluded, and the possibility that the Ukraine war was in fact America’s fault through its encouragement of Nato expansion. Meanwhile, Putin is preoccupied with two quite different issues.

The first of these concerns the duplicity and unreasonableness of the United States and its satellites, whether in (as he sees it) refusing defence cooperation against Iran, funding terrorism in the Caucasus, blocking the proposed Istanbul settlement with Ukraine, or — he claims — blowing up the Nord Stream pipeline. His other concern centres around Putin’s perception of the historic relationship between Russia and Ukraine. He is so keen to get this point across that he spends roughly the first 25 minutes of the interview expounding a detailed Putinist history of Russia, all the way back to AD 882.

His overall message is that Ukraine has always been contested territory, with deep ties to Russia. In his view, the current conflict kicked off after 2008, when Ukraine began to explore deeper links with the European Union — a fact that threatened an existing Russian free trade agreement with Ukraine. The resulting contest between Russia and the EU over cooperation with Ukraine came to a head in 2013, he claims, with the “Euromaidan” protests and subsequent toppling of the Viktor Yanukovych government. In Putin’s view, this represented a US-supported “coup d’etat”:

They created the threat to Crimea, which we had to take under our protection. They launched the war in Donbas in 2014 with the use of aircraft and artillery against civilians. This is when it all started […] All this against the background of military development of this territory and opening of Nato’s doors.
- Vladimir Putin

For Putin, then, the current conflict is a continuation of Russia’s historic relation with Ukraine, overlaid with geopolitical wrangling dating from the end of the Cold War and which has been escalating steadily since 2008. None of this, he claims, is Russia’s fault, as his country is simply protecting its own interests. For example, he dismisses out of hand the suggestion of an expansionist Russia, saying that he has “no interest” in attacking Poland.

More, he views Western talk of Russian expansionism as merely propaganda designed to frame him as a boogeyman. There is a great deal more to dissect; overall, though, his perspective offers a counter-history of the modern world whose twin governing themes are Russian nationhood and ressentiment: multiple mentions of “the golden billion”, plus the recurring themes of betrayal, mendaciousness, obstinacy, and persecution by the West.

Beneath this, though, lies a perspective framed by national interests and the balance of power familiar with American realists such as John Mearsheimer. Ressentiment aside, realists might well interpret the Putinist perspective as consistent with Russia’s overall historic geopolitical position.

Yet, while the American dissident Right may find some points of sympathy with the Moscow line, not least on the gaps between idealist US messaging and cynical action, or indeed the greater predictive power of realism over idealism in international affairs, calling this an alignment of interests between Putin and American conservatives would be wildly overstating the case. Putin seems considerably less interested in the question of who really governs the United States than in that country’s perceived ill-treatment of Russia. But as we slide into what promises to be a turbulent American election year, we can expect the grinding of axes to grow louder and more purposeful.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.