Less Than Meets the Eye
Parsing Tucker's Putin Interview
I was probably one of the relatively few people that sat through the entire two hour Tucker Carlson interview with Vladimir Putin. To call it an “interview” is not quite right: Carlson essentially allowed Putin to discourse at length and only occasionally tried to prod him in the direction of his own preferred talking points about the war in Ukraine. Any appearance of tension or journalistic effort only occurred because Carlson seemed to have the expectation that Putin would cooperate with his own line and appeared frustrated (“annoyed,” he said in his prefatory remarks) when it immediately turned out Putin seemed to have his own ideas . Essentially, the interview consisted of a melange of multiple, sometimes contradictory, lines of propaganda about the war. But to say that it was “propaganda” also might gave a misleading impression: it suggests that there is a “real” underlying motivation for the war, while the justifications are merely self-serving deceptions for public consumption. But what it actually might reveal is superficiality and incoherence of the case for war itself. Instead, there were a number overlapping and shifting messages to different constituencies. is not a single overarching ideology at play, but rather a succession of “ideologemes,” little snippets of ideology: themes from Russian nationalism, Western far right cultural pessimism, anti-colonialism, and Soviet nostalgia all crop up—even little remnants of Putin’s Marxist-Leninist training appear, like when he talked about the “excessive production capacities” of the West. Putin doubled down on the theme of “denazification”—evidently somewhat to the irritation of the America Firster Carlson —while at the same time offering a revisionist picture of the start of World War II, sympathetic to Hitler’s territorial aims and essentially blaming the war on Polish intransigence, saying “they pushed Hitler to start World War II by attacking them.” This speaks to the awkward position of Russia claiming simultaneously to embody the continuation of the Great Patriotic War’s anti-fascist crusade while being the darling of a far right at home and abroad, which views it as the last remaining hope of “white civilization.”
This synthetic, “postmodern” quality does not reflect devilishly clever strategy, rather its incoherence directly reflects the fragility and fragmentation of Russia’s entire post-Soviet political project. The Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ischenko writes of “a crisis of hegemony” in the post-Soviet world and that both Putin’s authoritarian, “Bonapartist” rule and its consequent war arise from the same “incapacity of the ruling class to develop sustained political, moral, and intellectual leadership.” His regime is ad hoc: a cobbled together arrangement of veterans of the security services and the rent-seeking oligarchs who accepted Putin’s settlement. Prighozhin’s mutiny made this provisional and brittle nature of “the state” clear. Rather than reflecting position of strength the strongman antics of Putin reveal fundamental political weaknesses and failures. As Ischenko put it in an interview with The New Left Review:
Putin, like other post-Soviet Caesarist leaders, has ruled through a combination of repression, balance and passive consent legitimated by a narrative of restoring stability after the post-Soviet collapse in the 1990s. But he has not offered any attractive developmental project. Russia’s invasion should be analyzed precisely in this context: lacking sufficient soft power of attraction, the Russian ruling clique has ultimately decided to rely on the hard power of violence, starting from coercive diplomacy in the beginning of 2021, then abandoning diplomacy for military coercion in 2022.
The political fragility and insecurity of the ruling class, its cliquishness and insularity, its inability to shape a single coherent narrative of national development, its preoccupation with finding tactical expedients to avoid the chaos of the 1990s and the humiliations of the collapse are all wedded to the cult of “special services,” from the former KGB officer Putin on down. As early as the 2000s, Dimitri Furman noticed this aspect of the regime, writing in his Imitation Democracy: The Development of Russia’s Post-Soviet Political System, that a growing number of “activities, essential to the maintenance of the system, were in essence ‘secret special operations.’ Rather than rare exceptions, they were fast becoming crucial and lasting dimensions of all political activity.” With that in mind, it’s worth noting Putin’s insistence on calling the war in Ukraine, not a war at all, but a “special military operation” and its simultaneous development of contradictory propaganda campaigns directed at different audiences rather than a single, articulable vision of Russia’s role in the world. Putin can’t escape looking at everything as an “op.” (Not for nothing, this confusion of war, propaganda, and secret police subterfuge along with the subordination of politics to the needs and views of the national security apparatus is something usually associated with totalitarian states.)
In so far as anything approaching a worldview emerges from the interview, it is Putin’s preoccupation with the central role “special services” purportedly play in world affairs, particularly his apparent belief that the United States is not governed by its political leadership but by its national security bureaucracy, which accords with Carlson’s view of a “deep state.” This is less of ideology than Putin’s own déformation professionnelle, one that’s so deeply rooted that he felt the need to bring up Carlson’s onetime attempt to join the CIA. (He even seemed to coyly suggest that Tucker might actually work for the CIA, which I’m sure Carlson found flattering.)
From the very beginning, Carlson’s generously offered Putin the chance to present the war in defensive terms, asking,
On February 22nd, 2022, you addressed your country in a nationwide address when the conflict in Ukraine started, and you said that you were acting because you had come to the conclusion that the United States, through NATO, might initiate a “surprise attack on our country”. And to American ears, that sounds paranoid. Tell us why you believe the United States might strike Russia out of the blue. How did you conclude that?
Instead of taking that route, Putin immediately launched into a nearly half hour disquisition on Russian history, the point of which was to stress the original unity of the Ukrainian and Russian peoples. Carlson averred in his opening remarks that he was “shocked” by this, but Putin has been harping on this theme since before the war. In July 2021, he published his essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which states “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.” Of course, “sovereignty in partnership” is not really sovereignty at all. Despite Putin’s open and lengthy statement of what the Old Bolsheviks would’ve called “Great Russian chauvinism,” Carlson came away from the interview stating, “Russia is not an expansionist power. You’d have to be an idiot to think that.” From both Putin’s rhetoric and his behavior, you’d have to be an idiot to think otherwise. Carlson is just employing the propagandist’s trick of using abuse and invective when the facts clearly oppose their case. But, as Michael Tracey’s recent Substack post makes clear, Putin’s open statements of Russian grand imperial ambitions are troubling for Westerners otherwise predisposed to be sympathetic and who have spent a great deal of time rationalizing Russia’s actions or presenting them in a defensive light.
In the minds of the Russian ruling class, there’s really no contradiction between defensive and offensive conceptions of the war: they both involve securing of their system, and in moments of more grandiose transport, their civilization, against Western encroachment. The other overriding theme of Putin’s discourse, connected to the fixation on “special services,” is the characterization of the Maidan as a “coup d’etat.” The fear is that the example of success of Ukraine’s political revolution might spread to Russia itself. This concern on the part of the Russian elite is not new: it has its origins in the collective trauma of the Soviet collapse. More proximately, it dates back to the “Color Revolutions” of the 2000s that toppled Leonid Kuchma in Ukraine, Askar Akayev in Kyrgyzstan, and Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia. As Furman writes,
These men had headed systems highly comparable to Russia’s, if substantially weaker, and their ousters aroused an irrational panic of the kind seen in tsarist circles after the French revolutions, or in Soviet circles in the run-up to the Prague Spring. To acknowledge the naturalness, the predictability of these regimes’ collapsing would mean acknowledging the inevitability of the collapse of Russia’s regime, too – an impossibility. Those in power in Russia thus concluded instead that these revolutions were all the work of Western security services (very much as Soviet leaders had blamed similar forces for unrest in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland).
Since that time, Russia’s foreign policy in its “near abroad” has since been fundamentally counter-revolutionary. As Ischenko notes the tempo of revolt had been picking up in the run up to the invasion:
Such uprisings have been accelerating on Russia’s periphery in recent years, including not just the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine in 2014 but also the revolutions in Armenia, the third revolution in Kyrgyzstan, the failed 2020 uprising in Belarus, and, most recently, the uprising in Kazakhstan. In the two last cases, Russian support proved crucial to ensure the local regime’s survival. Within Russia itself, the “For Fair Elections” rallies held in 2011 and 2012, as well as later mobilizations inspired by Alexei Navalny, were not insignificant. On the eve of the invasion, labor unrest was on the rise, while polls showed declining trust in Putin and a growing number of people who wanted him to retire. Dangerously, opposition to Putin was higher the younger the respondents were.
Again, the war is a piece of domestic policy as much as it is foreign policy: an attempt to consolidate a regime that feels itself to be vulnerable. The acquiescence of the population and the resilience of the Russian economy in the face of sanctions may prove that it was a successful expedient, at least temporarily. It would be dangerous indeed if Russia’s regime concluded that such “operations” redounded mostly to its benefit.