Tucker Carlson’s interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow should have been a big win for both of them.
For Putin, it was a chance to explain his justification for the Russian invasion of Ukraine to a sympathetic voice in American conservatism, just as congressional Republicans are considering whether to approve a Ukrainian aid package. For Carlson, it was an opportunity to bolster his relevance after being fired from Fox News last year — and promote his new media venture at the same time.
But Carlson’s much-touted interview, recorded on Tuesday and released on Thursday evening, ran into a problem as soon as it began. In his attempt to justify the invasion, Putin spent a significant part of the interview focused on a tedious recounting of Russian and Ukrainian history, to the point that Carlson became irritated and two began to clash.
Carlson addressed the dispute in his introduction to the interview.
“Putin went on for a very long time, probably half an hour, about the history of Russia,” the former prime-time star explained in his preamble from a spot overlooking Moscow’s Red Square as snow fell around him. “… And honestly, we thought this was a filibustering technique and found it annoying and interrupted him several times, and he responded. He was annoyed by the interruption.”
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Putin’s lengthy version of the history between the two countries — which he’s laid out before, and has been criticized as a revisionist pretext for war by some historians — went back as far as the 9th century, namechecking the likes of “Prince Rurik” and “Prince Yaroslav the Wise” in an attempt to argue that Ukrainians are actually Russian.
But that rambling account seems unlikely to resonate with Carlson’s die-hard conservative audience in the United States.
Carlson later claimed that he understood why Putin needed to discuss so much history, but as he tried to cut in during the interview, the Russian president grew irritated.
“I asked you at the beginning, are we going to have a serious talk or a show?” Putin said at one point, speaking through a translator. “You said a serious talk. So bear with me, please.”
On Fox News, Carlson was a master of combative interviews, carefully controlling their flow with interjections and even undermining his subjects by flashing a blank look on his face or a mischievous smile. But in Moscow, Carlson was a bystander for much of his own interview, interjecting only briefly. He also didn’t ask the Russian president about a number of challenging topics, from Russian atrocities in Ukraine to Putin’s attacks on internal dissent.
The disputes between Carlson and Putin were a surprise in part because they have recently agreed on so much. Carlson has called Ukraine an undemocratic “client state” used to provoke Russia into war, words that echoed Putin so closely that an anti-Trump Republican group created a viral video in 2023 that paired Carlson’s rhetoric with Putin’s.
Still, Carlson’s disagreements with Putin about the interview itself became clear even before the interview aired. Earlier this week, in a promotional video for the interview, Carlson falsely portrayed himself as the only Western reporter who had “bothered” to interview Putin. That carried with it an insinuation, deliberate or not, that Putin isn’t important enough to interview, sparking pushback from a Putin spokesman who claimed Putin has received “many” interview requests.
Despite his fleeting clashes with Carlson, Putin still used the interview to portray Russia as a country acting in self-defense, beset by NATO and the CIA. And while most of the discussion focused on the war, Carlson also granted Putin a forum to hold forth on the grand intellectual questions of our time.
In one of the interview’s stranger questions, Carlson asked how a world leader could profess to be a Christian while ordering violence, only to see the Russian president brush the question away by praising Russia’s “moral values.” Carlson also asked Putin when he thought an “AI empire” of self-aware machines would begin.
“I think there’s no stopping Elon Musk,” Putin replied, referring to the billionaire owner of X, the social network formerly known as Twitter, who has welcomed Carlson’s show onto his platform. “He will do as he sees fit.”
In the interview’s most contentious moment, Carlson pressed Putin to release Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter who has been detained in Russia for almost a year.
“I just want to ask you directly, without getting into the details of it or your version of what happened, if, as a sign of your decency, you would be willing to release him to us and we’ll bring him back to the United States,” Carlson said.
Putin demurred, suggesting that Gershkovich could only be released as part of a prisoner exchange.
There was a sense even among some of Carlson’s allies that the interview had failed to reach its full promise. On X, former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn — who pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying about his own contacts with the Russian government — said viewers should understand that Carlson was probably subjected to negotiated terms about the interview.
“I’m certain there will be a lot of Monday morning quarter backing,” Flynn wrote.