The Hidden Meaning(s) of Tucker Carlson’s Putin Interview

Putin was likely addressing his professional colleagues in the American intelligence community and US politicians who seek to reorient the country’s foreign policy in accordance with the prescriptions of the Realist school in the near future.

Barely a few weeks before the second anniversary of the Ukraine War, American journalist Tucker Carlson —one of the country’s most popular, controversial and influential media figures— interviewed Russian President Vladimir Putin. On the platform “X”, the viral interview has been watched by more than 200 million viewers. Several observers remarked the singularity of this rare exchange, particularly under the current circumstances. American geopolitical analyst George Friedman noted that this event can be characterised as “unprecedented”. Professor Jeffrey Sachs claimed the corresponding dialog was “extremely sophisticated”. By itself, the event is indeed significant for several reasons. First, this interview is arguably Putin’s most important public message for the United States since his fateful 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference. Second, rampant Russophobia in much of the so-called collective West has discouraged genuine intellectual efforts to understand —in a dispassionate way— the strategic and logical sources of Russian conduct. Moreover, in an environment in which the uncontested Schmittian hegemony of liberalism cancels anything and everything that does not follow its overzealous creed, the behaviour of Russian statecraft has become a very obscure matter whose comprehension is utterly unintelligible even for Western professional policymakers and senior leaders. Third, regardless of what people —including supporters, opponents and neutral observers— think about Vladimir Putin as an individual, the Russian leader is one of the key contemporary protagonists of international politics whose actions are shaping the trajectory of history in the present century, for better or worse. As such, statements which reflect his thinking and perspectives deserve to be examined in a sober manner. Dismissing the importance of the interview with ad-hominem monikers meant to disqualify Putin or Carlson for personal or ideological reasons is not only a cognitive shortcoming, but a disservice to the expedient need of a better understanding of the rationales which are driving the Kremlin’s policies. Fourth, the timing is highly suggestive, especially considering existing political realities, facts on the ground, Russia’s shifting strategies in Ukraine, windows of opportunity and the underlying diplomatic subtexts that —as the analysis presented below argues— Putin was seemingly hinting at in a thinly veiled way.

Rather than described, retold or summarised, the interview needs to be interpretated exegetically in order to clarify both what is revealed and what is concealed. An in-depth Straussian reading shows that this was more than an opportunity for Vladimir Putin to strengthen his reputation as a shrewd Machiavellian statesman eager to outfox his rivals at every turn. Likewise, the point of the interview goes beyond an interest in sharing Putin’s sophisticated worldviews about history, geopolitics, religion, literature and the foreseeable impact of advanced technologies. Another interesting highlight that has been noted is the contrast with certain incumbent Western heads of state whose intellectual sharpness and performance as public speakers are —to put it charitably— unpolished. Far from being condescending, theatrical or incendiary, Putin delivered his lengthy and complex message in a coolheaded unsentimental way. In fact, Putin has no political need to charm or impress Western audiences or even to cater to their agendas, concerns or problems. What is relevant is the hidden significance of his statements. Of course, the scrutiny of a single interview is not enough to master the esoteric art of Kremlinology or the geopolitics of the post-Soviet space but, considering the exceptional nature of this interview, its substantial contents must be deciphered in order to grasp its meaningfulness. In fact, it was arguably more than just a normal interview in which impressions and opinions are externalised. Therefore, the following text presents strategic takeaways intended as a guide for the perplexed.  

The (true) intended audience of this interview.

This interview —carried out in English by an American journalist and posted on a social media platform owned by American entrepreneur Elon Musk— was obviously addressed to Western audiences. However, the fact that it was made freely available for anybody does not mean that it was intended for the general public or the average citizen of North American, European and South Pacific states. In this regard, it is mistaken to believe that the purpose behind it is propagandistic, as some commentators have argued. Although it is nowhere near Western media outlets in terms of international projection, Moscow already operates multiple platforms which convey its political perspectives and talking points on a global scale. In short, Putin himself has no need to engage directly in the dissemination of propaganda when his subordinates are already doing it on a permanent basis. This explains why Putin did not bother sharing at length his opinions about some of the most controversial and polarising issues in the West that are often portrayed in a derisive way in Russian media, including illegal immigration, the so-called “culture wars”, unsolved scandals involving high-profile politicians, the deepening crisis of liberal democracy and the proliferation of militant wokeness as an increasingly absurd self-righteous religion. Rather than disparagingly malign the collective West as a post-modern version of the Weimar Republic, Putin’s responses were focused on Russian foreign policy. In this regard, the Russian President framed his statements in accordance with the prism of traditional Westphalian Realpolitik.

Through this format, Putin was not addressing the Biden administration, NATO’s commanders or even Washington’s mainstream foreign policy establishment. The neoconservative groupthink of the bipartisan “Blob” would make such effort pointless. Instead, Putin was likely addressing his professional colleagues in the American intelligence community and US politicians who seek to reorient the country’s foreign policy in accordance with the prescriptions of the Realist school in the near future. Putin believes that a hypothetical deal can perhaps be negotiated with Henry Kissinger’s spiritual heirs in the American ‘deep state’ and that makes such people worth reaching out to. Putin’s expected interlocutors in places like the Beltway, the Pentagon and Langley can hardly be described as pro-Russian in any way, but some of them are pragmatists who think that a reassessment of American statecraft and grand strategy is necessary. Now that the promise of the “rules-based order” has been exposed as little more than an empty catchphrase by various inconsistencies, chaotic crises and blunders, Putin surely anticipates an increasing political pressure to readjust Washington’s foreign policy in accordance with more restrained criteria.

In case his intended audience was not clear, Putin highlighted Carlson’s previous interest in pursuing a CIA career, his respect for current CIA Director William Burns, the power wielded by unelected officials in the US, the existence of backchannels through which covert bilateral contacts between Washington and Moscow take place and the (hypothetical?) condition of American intelligence services as potential partners. The message is there for everyone, but these subtle hints can only be decoded by those that are willing to listen carefully. Interestingly, Tucker himself has explained that one of the purposes of the interview was the need to foster a better mutual understanding and he also has been an outspoken opponent of an escalating undeclared war between his country and Russia. Putin’s apparent endorsement of Biden’s re-election —days after the interview— does not contradict this reasoning. If pragmatic leaders are not in charge in Washington anytime soon, Putin certainly does not mind the continuation of an administration whose policies are detrimental for US national interests. After all, Putin is convinced that the US is experiencing the harmful consequences of unipolar overstretch.

The art of the deal.

Although he may have held overoptimistic expectations in the early days of his administration, Vladimir Putin clearly understands that the idea of Russia joining the collective West as a senior partner is out of touch with reality, now more than ever before. According to his view, Russia —as a strong, assertive and independent state— can hardly be welcomed in American-led clubs like NATO. In addition. Putin also questioned the reliability of Western states as legitimate partners who have not honoured their commitments since the Soviet Union was promised that NATO would not move Eastward after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the reunification of Germany.  However, he stated that, despite clashing geopolitical interests, a reproachment that facilitates the strategic management of tensions was and remains feasible.

He explicitly mentioned his preference for a negotiated bilateral agreement as a solution for the Ukraine War. Despite his discontent with unreciprocated gestures of good will for many years, Putin reiterated his willingness to formulate a deal based on a mutually acceptable compromise. This would likely require the preservation of strategic stability, the realignment or neutrality of Ukraine and the diplomatic reconfiguration of European security architecture in a way that does not directly contradicts Russian national interests. The Russian president does not seem interested in the endless continuation of an attritional conflict that can substantially diminish Russian national power and which could also spiral out of control through an eventual direct kinetic engagement with American military forces. Likewise, references to the rise of multipolarity as a model of world order that is replacing the unipolarity which prevailed during the early post-Cold War era and comparisons to the decline of the Roman Empire must not be interpreted as emotional displays of Schadenfreude. Instead, an emphasis on a changing balance of power increases the attractiveness of an accommodation between Washington and Moscow so that their incompatible interests do not lead to a direct war.

Even though Putin sought to present himself as potential peacemaker, that does not make him a peacenik and he certainly does not want to be seen as one. He knows that —even if it comes with dangerous risks— war is an instrument of statecraft. As an alternative to diplomacy, he also warned that Russia is prepared to fight to the bitter end in case détente does not occur. In a somewhat ominous tone, Putin remarked that Russia’s development of advanced weaponry —such as hypersonic missiles capable of delivering nukes— is a countermeasure which responds to what his government regards as a series of attempts to encircle the geopolitical perimeter of Russian national security. In a nutshell, the Kremlin is ready to settle for the transactional exchange of carrots, but it is also willing and capable of dispensing sticks.

These statements can be read as threats, but sabre-rattling also serves the purpose of making the case for a Faustian pact. The admission that the Kremlin’s war aims in Ukraine have not been achieved is ambiguous. It can mean a willingness to keep fighting even if the conflict becomes a protracted quagmire. Nevertheless, considering the counterproductive fallout of said scenario, it can also be interpreted as a self-confessed reality check. The recognition that Russia cannot afford to pursue a maximalist agenda in the short term means that —in a potential negotiation— the Kremlin will have to accept a formula which involves concessions that limit the extent of its revisionist backlash. Finally, a literal exegesis is also conceivable: the ultimate endgame behind the invasion of Ukraine is not military, but diplomatic. Maybe what Moscow has wanted all along is to gain an upper hand so that it can negotiate from a position of relative strength and the reliance on military force constitutes one of the last cards in a desperate gamble to make that happen. Needless to say, these three meanings are not mutually exclusive.

Furthermore, rather than an explicit sign of contempt, the classification of Western European states by Vladimir Putin as American satellites with no independent agency —a perspective consistent with the geopolitical theories of the late Zbigniew Brezinski— means that Russians know a deal can only be made with the US. He knows that the right people he needs to talk to are or will be in Washington, not in Brussels, London, Berlin or Paris. The rest is commentary.

The weight of history matters for statesmanship.

One can agree or disagree with Putin’s dissertation about the long-range organic development of the Russian state as a historical process. Moreover, the account he presented is partial in the sense that it reflects the Russian version of historical events. Nevertheless, his fixation on history —especially through an approach that resembles the teachings of the so-called longue durée school of historiography— is relevant for various reasons. The scrutiny of history is useful to identify cycles, constraints and behavioural patterns. The timeless influence of impersonal forces and the intervention of human agency are interwoven in the evolution of historical trajectories. As a theoretical model that it useful for analytical, predictive and prescriptive purposes in the field of statecraft, geopolitics itself has been theoretically conceptualised as a form of historical security materialism. Furthermore, historical experience defines the unique heritage, identities, traditions, profiles, characters, interests, values, beliefs, fears and aspirations of nations. History matters.

In addition, Putin’s historical literacy reveals the core of his Realist mindset. Unlike liberals, Realists have never forgotten the instructive worldly lessons of history about tragedies, war, intrigue and the unpleasant necessities of political life, as well as the unchanging proclivity of human nature for dominance. Unsurprisingly, the classical writings of Realist authors —such as Machiavelli, Morgenthau and Kissinger— are peppered with abundant historical examples. These thinkers know that history is written with iron and fire in the battlefields, but they also know that —in an imperfect world in which malice, hostility and duplicity are common— pragmatic backroom deals negotiated by power brokers are preferable to bloodshed as the lesser of two evils. By sharing his fascination with history as a reference to understand the chessboard of high politics, Putin has reaffirmed his condition as a Realist in the continental European tradition of Talleyrand, Metternich and Clausewitz. Said intellectual affinity is important because it discloses that he is a cynic statesman and not a crusader driven by either ideology or megalomania. This is incomprehensible for liberal politicians who unwittingly neglect the transcendental importance of history. For example, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel once manifested her frustration towards what she perceived as Putin’s “outdated” or “anachronistic” pursuit of geopolitical imperatives for Russian national interests. In the practice of statesmanship, it is utterly unwise to ignore the teachings imparted by the ruthless testament of history. The logical fate of those that foolishly seek to bury history out of intellectual hubris or strategic incompetence is to experience a rude awakening.

Ukraine as a red line.

As expected, Putin did not conceal his dissatisfaction and concern over the successive waves of NATO’s eastward expansion in the post-Cold era and the campaign of the US-led alliance against Serbia. Yet, it is no secret that that back then Russia was not strong enough to make its objections heard in Washington and Brussels. Furthermore, he restated that the presence of the transatlantic alliance —as a potentially hostile military force— in Ukraine represented a red line for Russian national security. In his perspective, the roots of the Ukraine War go back to the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan movement, both of which are seen as blatant regime change operations masterminded by Washington. This confession shows that that Moscow was unable to alter Kiev’s strategic orientation through subtler means, including diplomacy, ‘active measures’ and the support for pro-Russian insurgent militias in the Donbass. He also justified the ‘special military operation’ that became the largest conventional conflict in Europe since WW2 as a response to the de facto miscarriage of the Minsk agreements.

Then, Russia chose the path of war as a gamble with the expectation that the display of force and muscle-flexing might bring an acceptable and credible settlement that was not achieved through overtures unsupported by hard power. Therefore, the war is an outspoken way to demonstrate that the Russians mean business. Considering the closeness between Russians and Ukrainians, Putin may indeed legitimately regard the ongoing conflict as a tragic civil war fought between brotherly nations. Yet, he opted for the invasion anyway because, in his own view, the potential alternative scenarios —especially those that involve the hypothetical presence of NATO forces at the doorstep of the Russian heartland— would have been worse. A reconciliation between Russians and Ukrainians might take generations or never materialise at all. In the meantime, Putin seemingly believes that, even if Russia will not be loved, at least it will be feared from now on.  

Putin’s priority in a prospective transactional agreement is an accommodation. It must be noted that, without Ukraine —seen by Putin as the natural borderland of the “Russian world— as a defensive barrier and geopolitical outpost, the overall strength of Moscow’s position the ‘near abroad’ as a whole becomes weaker and its role in the concert of European powers is substantially diminished. He has made it clear that the possibility of Ukrainian NATO membership represents an existential threat for the national security of the Russian state. Based on these political realities and the terms of the negotiations that were prematurely aborted shortly after the war started, it seems that the enduring written guarantee of Ukrainian neutrality is the bare minimum that Putin would be willing to accept. The continuation of the war means that, if he cannot get that, the dismantlement of Ukraine as a functional national state or its forced partition are also conceivable and acceptable for Moscow. The greater-scope endgame of Putin’s strategic project is to incrementally revert the loss of strategic depth that Russia underwent with the fall of the USSR. Such pursuit would require the reassertion of Russia as the hegemonic power in the post-Soviet space in the long run, most likely through a combination of deterrence, selective interventions, economic interconnectedness, political favours for local ruling elites and indirect forms of strategic control. Yet, a pertinent distinction has to be made. Russia does not have the critical mass or resources that would be needed to restore the Soviet Union and it has no interest in reabsorbing entire nations, along with the responsibility to manage their affairs. In order to satisfy its defensive imperatives, an informal degree of regional hegemony underwritten by a favourable correlation of forces will suffice.

Economic warfare is here to stay.

Putin referenced both the sabotage of the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline —attributed to the CIA— and the weaponisation of the US dollar. Although suspicions, circumstantial facts and journalistic reports point in that direction, responsibility for the former has not been established beyond any reasonable doubt with hard evidence at this point. On the other hand, the instrumental use of the greenback as a coercive vector of economic statecraft is no secret. In this regard, Putin clearly understand that the dollar’s ‘exorbitant privilege’ as a hegemonic reserve currency that is being used in a spectrum of acts of economic warfare encourages states to pursue de-dollarisation as a protective asymmetric countermeasure. Such perception is not just an opinion, it reflects the defensive manoeuvres that Russia had to rely on in order to deflect the impact of punitive Western sanctions implemented as a non-kinetic response to the invasion of Ukraine. In short, Putin knows that the arena of money is one of the key theatres of engagement in today’s ongoing great power rivalries. Although Moscow seems to have effectively eluded the most harmful consequences of US sanctions for the time being, Putin purposefully underscored one of the greatest paradoxes of contemporary economic warfare: whereas the USD is a source of American strength which undergirds Washington’s geopolitical position, it also represents a vulnerability worth targeting.

Putin’s portrayal of Poland as a worthy rival.

In the interview, Vladimir Putin dismissed the legitimacy of Ukrainian statehood as an artificial invention of Soviet apparatchiks. In turn, as a KGB officer whose professional resumé includes a the practice of spycraft in East Germany under Soviet control, Putin seems genuinely baffled by the reluctance of Berlin to stand up for its own national interests. From Putin’s perspective, it seems that the current German political leadership cares more about its allegiance to both Western ideological totems and Washington’s foreign policy agenda than about the necessities of the German state in accordance with the Bismarckian lens of traditional Realpolitik. However, no such contempt is afforded to Poland, which is surprising considering the enduring animosities between Moscow and Warsaw. Putin acknowledged that the Russian and Polish spheres of influence have collided throughout history in Ukraine and other contested territories in Eastern Europe. This attitude represents a recognition of the Polish imperial tradition as an assertive force to be reckoned with. Concerning contemporary chapters, Putin mentioned the presence of Polish fighters in the Ukrainian battlespace. As a Russian nationalist, Putin can hardly be described as an admirer of Poland but —as a hardcore realist— he understands that the balance of power in Europe is changing. Whereas post-historical European states like Germany and France are slowly fading into irrelevance as a result of their strategic myopia, the sun of history still shines in Warsaw. The aftermath of the Ukraine War has strengthened the role of Poland as a self-confident state whose geopolitical influence is growing.

Putin is aware that Poland can represent either a spearhead against Russia’s attempts to redraw the geopolitical order in the post-Soviet space and in Eastern Europe or a potential partner in the eventual negotiation of a Faustian deal. The latter sounds counterintuitive —and unpalatable for the most hawkish Russian hardliners— right now, but Moscow perhaps would not mind a non-aggression pact with the Poles and Warsaw might be tempted by the prospect of territorial gains in case Ukraine is either partitioned or dismantled as a functional polity. After all, Putin realises that Western Ukraine is historically closer to Warsaw than to Moscow.  

One way or another, the Kremlin knows that any potential diplomatic settlement will have to take into consideration Warsaw’s interests. From the point of view of the Russian national interest, that is what raison d’état dictates. After all, geopolitics has the ability to make strange bedfellows. Moscow and Warsaw do not have to be friends or even pretend to like each other, but one of the ideas that Putin is seemingly hinting at is that maybe a reasonable modus videndi is not unconceivable. Based on the limits of its conventional military performance and pressing strategic priorities, Moscow lacks the political appetite or the material ability to overrun Poland. Besides, Warsaw has become strong enough to deter the prospect of a conventional Russian attack. Therefore, the point of the reassurance not to attack this Eastern European nation is not to state the obvious. Instead, it can be read as a subtle hint that points in another direction.

Religion as an instrument of statecraft

If is hard to tell a man’s religious beliefs, especially in the case of a man as secretive as Vladimir Putin. One could argue that his pious observance of Orthodox Christianity is sincere or that this appearance is pretty much a cynical façade of make-believe. Nevertheless, such Byzantine discussion is irrelevant. What matters is that —regardless of his personal beliefs— he is aware that religion is useful for statecraft. As any student of history knows, this is hardly a new discovery but few people in the West understand the enduring political traction of religion in societies that have refused to embrace liberal secularism. In contrast to post-modern Western states in which religion has become an outdated relic in the public sphere (and unlike the militant Atheism preached by the Soviet regime) Putin understands the instrumental importance of religion for the national interest. First, as a common denominator which shapes worldviews and values, religion is a cohesive element which underpins the collective identities of nations and their character (Volksgeist, using Hegelian terminology). Moreover, religion can also be harnessed for the projection of external influence as both a source of “soft power” and as a discreet channel for intelligence activities and covert tasks. As is known, the institutional structures of Orthodox Christianity have served Moscow’s foreign policy interests in areas of the post-Soviet space which are affiliated to the so-called “Russian world”, including Eastern Ukraine. Yet, a state like Russia —which can be characterised as a muti-ethnic empire in which various religious traditions have co-existed for centuries— needs to make sure that religious differences do not fuel internal tensions for the sake of stability. Finally, embracing Orthodoxy legitimises Russia’s claim as the successor of both the Eastern Roman Empire (which outlasted its Western counterpart for a millennium) and the mediaeval princedom of the Kievan Rus’. Just like the Orthodox clergymen of Tsarist Russia denounced Napoleon as a dangerous invader motivated by a Luciferian ideology, Putin wants to position the narrative of the so-called ‘Third Rome’ as a bulwark against a Godless West which has forsaken Christianity. This is the symbolical imagery that Putin is evoking, not as a missionary act of eschatological zeal, but in order to fuel an ideological mobilisation that serves the national interests of the Russian state.