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Putin doesn’t need Tucker Carlson to get his message across

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Speaking from atop a Moscow highrise, Tucker Carlson hyped his decision to travel to Russia to interview Russian President Vladimir Putin as an act of journalistic duty and personal bravery. In a video posted to X, formerly Twitter, on Tuesday, the former Fox News host complained that Western media outlets were lying to their readers by omission about the war in Ukraine.

“Not a single Western journalist has bothered to interview the president of the other country involved in this conflict, Vladimir Putin,” Tucker said. “Most Americans have no idea why Putin invaded Ukraine or what his goals are now. They’ve never heard his voice. That’s wrong.”

It was Carlson here who was misleading his viewers. The Russian president has had no shortage of opportunities to speak his mind about why he decided to invade Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Indeed, he has repeatedly offered detailed explanations for this mystifying decision. If Carlson hasn’t heard them before, it’s because he has not been listening.

The Russian president has not sat with a Western journalist for an interview since his troops invaded Ukraine nearly two years ago. The last time he did so was in October 2021, when a correspondent with CNBC spoke with Putin for 20 minutes on the sidelines of an energy conference in Moscow.

But that is a choice made not by the journalists, but by the Kremlin. “We’ve lodged several requests with the Kremlin in the last 18 months,” Steve Rosenberg, the BBC’s Russia editor, wrote in response to Tucker’s video. “Always a ‘no’ for us.”

The Kremlin itself later rebutted Carlson’s claim. “Mr. Carlson is wrong,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a daily news briefing Wednesday. “We receive many requests for interviews with the president.”

In his MSNBC days, Tucker Carlson was a Putin cynic

Why would Putin talk to a foreign journalist? The Russian president is backed by a sprawling state-funded media empire, which includes the English-language Russia Today, as well as numerous friendly outlets that are privately owned. He is well-known for his lengthy question-and-answer sessions: The most recent lasted more than four hours and included queries from foreign journalists.

Speaking in that session, which took place late December, he stated that there had been no changes in Russia’s war aims: “denazification, demilitarisation and a neutral status for Ukraine.” He repeated his claim that the problems with Kyiv began with a “state coup” in 2014 against the pro-Moscow politician Viktor Yanukovych and justified the seizure of Crimea by saying it was “historical nonsense” that it was ever a part of Ukraine.

The message wasn’t so much different than the ones he made in February 2022. Then, he described his decision to invade Ukraine as a last-ditch effort to push back Western aggression that included NATO expansion. “The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a redivision of the world,” Putin stated. “This array includes promises not to expand NATO eastward even by an inch. To reiterate: They have deceived us, or, to put it simply, they have played us.”

At times, Putin has leaned into paranoid theories to explain his worldview: In a July 2022 speech, he repeated a reference to the “golden billion,” an obscure apocalyptic theory that describes a conspiracy against Russia orchestrated by a wealthy Western elite. And long before the invasion of Ukraine, he had dismissed the idea of Ukrainian national identity altogether. “The word ‘Ukrainian,’ judging by archival documents, originally referred to frontier guards who protected the external borders,” he wrote in July 2021.

The Russian leader often bends history to his worldview. In 2020, he published a 9,000-word long essay that claimed the Soviet annexation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in 1939 was done “with the consent of the elected authorities” — an a historic statement that, in hindsight, looks a lot like justification for the future takeover of a neighbor.

Tucker Carlson says he will interview Vladimir Putin in Moscow

A skilled interviewer might be able to probe here. Does Putin really believe his own stated motivations? But the Kremlin hasn’t sought out a potential inquisitor for his first interview since invading Ukraine. If Putin had wanted that, he might have spoken to the BBC’s Rosenberg, who speaks Russian and has lived in the country. Instead, they chose a former TV host with no real ties to Russia who was unceremoniously dumped from his job last year.

Journalists who do critical reporting on Russia do not get interviews with Putin anymore. Many have been forced to leave the country due to restrictive censorship laws put in place after the invasion of Ukraine. That includes both Western and Russian journalists, the latter of whom often now operate abroad at considerable personal and professional insecurity.

Some of the foreign journalists Carlson scorned have been detained. Evan Gershkovich, a reporter with the Wall Street Journal, was arrested and accused of espionage during a reporting trip to Yekaterinburg last year. Another journalist working for an international outlet, Alsu Kurmasheva of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was arrested in October while visiting Russia from her home in Prague (Kurmasheva holds U.S. and Russian citizenship).

When Putin was asked about the detention of journalists in December, he rejected the premise. “Why don’t they [Western journalists] stop committing offenses on Russian territory?” he said in a response to a question from the New York Times’s Valerie Hopkins, a Western journalist in Moscow at that moment.

Putin has justifiably been a source of fascination around the world, the subject of countless profiles and books over decades. Those who have spoken in-depth with him over the years describe a difficult interlocutor. “He’s very difficult to draw out,” Austrian anchorman Armin Wolf told Politico in 2018 after his interview with the Russian president, notably combative, went viral online. “He doesn’t say a word that he doesn’t intend to. He’s extremely controlled.”

There are many probing questions we should ask Putin, from the impact of the Wagner rebellion to the real state of the Russian economy and more. Carlson may try and ask some of these questions. But sitting down face to face with him doesn’t guarantee a look into his soul, as at least one other American has discovered before.

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