By: iryna hnatiuk
February 9 2024
Those are some of the words used to describe Tucker Carlson’s much-hyped sit-down with Russian President Vladimir Putin after it aired at 23:00 GMT on February 8 – making the American right-wing television personality the first Westerner to interview Putin since 2021.
The interview racked up over 100 million views in a little over 12 hours, but the list of journalistic errors is long. Carlson did not use the word “invasion”, did not question Putin when he blamed the Ukrainians for the war, and even helped Putin present a deep-state style conspiracy theory that the U.S. is run by a CIA shadow government.
The hodgepodge of revisionist and inaccurate claims made during the interview – like how Ukrainians still consider themselves Russian, or Ukraine started the war, or how the 2014 coup d’etat in Ukraine was accomplished with the help of the CIA – did not just showcase Carlson’s inability to interview someone like Putin, according to Dominik Stecuła, an assistant professor of political science at the Colorado State University who focuses on U.S. information — by not pushing back on Russia’s human rights violations or any other aspects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Carlson “entirely succumbed to the Kremlin’s rules.”
“There is a reason why it is dangerous to hand over the microphone to a person who is responsible for invading a sovereign country,” Stecuła told Logically Facts. “When Carlson asks his first question, Putin goes on for nearly half an hour with his revisionist history of Russia. Carlson really seemed to want to give Putin an opportunity to make the war about NATO expansion, but Putin wasn’t interested in this; it was all about imperialist land claims and how Ukraine belongs to Russia.”
Maria Lapenkova, who reports on Russian misinformation for Sweden’s public broadcaster SVT, added that Putin used the interview to spread the claim that Ukraine is filled with Nazis: “This is, according to him, the reason why Russia still hasn’t achieved its war aims – because the de-Nazification hasn’t yet been achieved.”
The result of the interview was largely expected – POLITICO even prepared bingo cards for what they anticipated would be a “ping-pong propaganda fest” and wrote in a follow-up piece that the interview “was never going to be a hard-hitter.”
The interview prompted misinformation even ahead of its release, as Carlson published a promotional video on February 6 where he denounced American media outlets for being “corrupt” and said that “not a single Western journalist has bothered to interview” Putin since the start of the war – a claim which sparked fury from Western journalists and researchers.
It is true that Carlson is the first American journalist to interview Putin since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war in February 2022. But he isn’t the first one to try.
“Mr. Carlson is not correct. In fact, there’s no way he could know this,” said the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on February 6, adding that Putin has received “numerous” interview requests from Western journalists. These, however, have been denied as the Kremlin doesn’t consider them “impartial.”
Following the invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin unleashed an unprecedented crackdown on independent journalism, criminalizing independent war reporting, banning media outlets from using words such as “assault” or “invasion,” blocking major foreign news outlets, and revoking the licenses of major domestic news outlets. Russia has expelled foreign journalists from several outlets, including the BBC, POLITICO, and Bulgarian and Swedish public broadcasters, arrested journalists from the Wall Street Journal and Radio Free Europe, and over 1,000 Russian journalists have reportedly fled the country within the first year of the invasion.
So, why Carlson?
“His position is different,” the Kremlin’s spokesperson explained.
Carlson has consistently repeated some of Russia’s claims for invading Russia, leading some to describe him as complicit in Russia’s “disinformation war.” This predates the invasion of Ukraine; in 2017, he accused the American left of using Putin as a scapegoat for domestic issues and trying to “drum up a new cold war.”
Post-invasion, Carlson has focused on criticizing U.S. support for Ukraine and claiming that Ukraine has been caught in between the U.S. and Russia. On the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion, Carlson falsely claimed that Biden’s ultimate goal was to “overthrow Putin”; other times, he has echoed the Kremlin’s claims that “ideologues within the Biden Administration did not want a negotiated peace in Ukraine,” but a “regime-change war against Russia.” He has referenced leaked U.S. intelligence documents as evidence that there were seven Ukrainians killed for every Russian and that Ukraine “is in fact losing the war” – despite these numbers being explicitly contradicted in the documents – as well as the debunked claim that Ukraine is developing biological weapons with the U.S. government.
Russian propaganda is only one tool in Carlson’s misinformation toolbox. Carlson’s prime-time Fox News show was the most-watched hour on cable news and has gone down in history for taking “fringe conspiracy theories to a mass audience.” This includes the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory that nonwhite people are brought into the West to replace white voters, along with false claims about the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the January 6 Capitol insurrection, and COVID-19 vaccines.
To journalists, Carlson shouldn’t be considered a “journalist” but a commentator. But while Carlson’s pro-Russian stance has further alienated him from Western media, it has made him all the more favorable in the eyes of Russia, which frequently ran Tucker’s show on its state-run media and publicly lamented his firing from Fox News in 2023.
The interview has been described as a “major coup” for Carlson; an opportunity to regain the attention he lost along with his Fox News spot, and presenting his new media company – announced last year – as an alternative, important outlet in the media landscape. Carlson’s paid streaming service, the Tucker Carlson Network, has “become increasingly fringe,” according to the BBC, producing a two-and-a-half-hour interview with Andrew Tate, a controversial influencer accused of rape and human trafficking.
“The key part is attention,” Colorado State University’s Stecuła told Logically Facts, explaining that Carlson has gone from being a “kingmaker of the political right” to “mostly irrelevant” since being dropped from Fox News. “His recent interviewees include Twitter user Catturd, a somewhat notorious persona on the American right-wing, as well as Larry Sinclair, whose claim to fame is saying that he took drugs and had sex with Barack Obama years ago. This isn’t exactly a list of high-impact names that sets the agenda for the public. By agreeing to hand over the megaphone to Putin, Carlson bought himself an extensive media attention, and outrage, at least for a few days.”
The interview is equally favorable for Russia, who expects Carlson to further boost his popularity in the American right. This was emphasized by several outlets, including the Washington Post, which assessed that the “Kremlin’s decision to allow the interview demonstrated Putin’s interest in building bridges to the disruptive MAGA element of the Republican Party.”
“This was essentially a way for Putin to do an unfiltered interview,” said Stecuła, “and promote his message to a friendly Western audience, mostly of populist Republicans who like Putin for sharing their disdain for ‘cancel culture’ – Putin is remarkably well versed in American culture wars – and for broadly speaking sharing policy objectives – especially the anti-LGBTQ policies that Putin is implementing in Russia.”
The BBC also noted the interview comes at an “opportune time” for Putin, as attempts to pass a $60bn U.S. bill for new military aid for Ukraine – which is essential for launching new counter-offensives in the south and eastern Donbas region – have stalled in Congress due to Republican opposition. The U.S. is Ukraine’s biggest Western supporter, and it’s probable that the Kremlin hopes the interview will further fuel this opposition – in effect starving Ukraine of funds and, potentially, sending ripples of hesitancy across the European countries that would be left to support Ukraine on their own.
However, some believe the interview wasn’t exactly what either of the two had hoped for.
During and after the video’s release, journalists and experts ridiculed the interview for being “boring,” containing mostly long historical monologues from Putin.
“Bet Tucker's audience is really excited to hear about all these copies of letters written by Bohdan Khmelnytsky in the 17th century that Putin gave him!” Max Seddon, Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times, wrote on X, referring to a thick folder of archival document copies given to Carlson during the interview.
“[Carlson] really does look incredibly naive at many points in the conversation. Putin runs circles around him and gives lectures that are mostly really, really boring. Overall, I think it was a missed opportunity for both of them, thankfully,” Janis Kluge, deputy head of the Eastern Europe Eurasia division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, SWP Berlin, wrote on X.
Stecuła said that not even Carlson’s fans can “watch these two hours and come out of it thinking that this interview made Carlson look good, look serious, or look like a journalist”.
“He got the attention he wanted, that’s for sure. (...) The interview has been widely discussed in other countries, like Poland, for example. But I definitely don’t think that Carlson expected Putin to push back at him whenever he interrupted him, to ridicule him. Putin absolutely controlled every aspect of this interview,” he added. “Putin clearly doesn’t respect Carlson. He mocked him for being an entertainer and not a serious journalist. He mocked him for applying for a CIA job and getting rejected when he was younger.”
Some experts believe that the interview was directed towards the Russian public rather than the American audience. SVT’s Lapenkova highlighted that Russia’s state-controlled media has a long history of using “experts” who confirm the Kremlin’s narrative – and that Carlson has become one of them.
“The Kremlin sees Carlson as a tool. By quoting him, it shows the Russians that there are others who share the Kremlin's views. In this case, it is incredibly gratifying that it is a super-famous American journalist,” she told Logically Facts.
Russian media has drummed up the interview throughout the week, Lapenkova said, with paparazzi documenting Carlson’s visits to restaurants, theatres, and exhibitions. Referring to data from Brand Analytics, TASS reported that Putin and Carlson entered the top mentions in social media.
“One Telegram channel calculated that Carlson was mentioned about 2,050 times in the past week in Russian media and by Russian war bloggers,” Lapenkova said. “Some war bloggers have taken Carlson's visit as proof that the West has lost trust in traditional media and that there is a demand for the Russian truth.’”
The interview was translated into Russian and published on the Kremlin's official website and has since been shared by multiple prominent Russian media outlets such as the state-owned Russia Today media, which uploaded a two-minute video summarizing “the main theses from the interview” – such as Kyiv's refusal to negotiate with Russia, NATO’s potential to formally acknowledge Russia's control over newly acquired territories, and the U.S.’s control over global media. The video attracted approximately 90,000 views on RT’s Telegram channel within two hours of its release.
State-owned news agency TASS published an article almost immediately after the interview aired, titled "Putin declares that Russia attacked no one”, writing that Russia does not initiate conflicts but defends its citizens and its lands, as stated by the Russian leader. REN TV highlighted that Putin "addressed several crucial questions related to the execution of the special operation in Ukraine, the historical context of the conflict, and the dynamics between the Russian Federation, the U.S., and other European countries”.
State channel RIA Novosti, which previously criticized the "Western information machine" for attempting to overshadow Putin's interview with news about Biden, referred to Putin’s interview with Carlson as "a tool of mass enlightenment”. A similar framing came from The First Channel, which wrote that "for the first time in two years, the Russian president has successfully conveyed our stance, motives, and perceptions of current events to a Western audience.” The state-controlled First Channel also called Putin’s 30-minute historical overview “essential,” as "Western media often neglect or misrepresent numerous events."
The “tool of mass enlightenment” could prove beneficial to Putin in Russia’s upcoming presidential election, SVT’s Lapenkova said:
“Putin likes to show that there is a democracy in the country,” she said. “Allowing an American journalist described as independent to interview him is one way of showing how democratic Russia is. (...) this is a great exposure for Putin to show the Russians that he can convey his views to an "independent," "truth-seeking" American journalist, who in turn is very interested in hearing those views.”
(This article was updated on 9/2/2024 to clarify that Putin was last interviewed by a Western journalist in 2021, not 2019.)