Softball questions, conspiracy theories and a 30-minute history lesson: Tucker Carlson's strange interview with Vladimir Putin

Tucker Carlson speaks to Vladimir Putin (Screenshot / Tucker Carlson)
Tucker Carlson speaks to Vladimir Putin (Screenshot / Tucker Carlson)

Around eight minutes into his mammoth two-hour interview with Vladimir Putin, Tucker Carlson was forced to interrupt.

"I beg your pardon. Can you tell us what period...? I'm losing track of where in history we are," said the former Fox News host, who had been listening to Putin's words with an expression of deepening vexation.

"It was in the 13th century," said the Russian president matter-of-factly.

The exchange was only one of many odd moments in Carlson's much-trailed meeting with the ex-KGB strongman, who has dominated his country's politics for more than two decades and is now virtually a dictator.

Streamed for free on Carlson's website on Thursday evening, it was Putin's first interview with a Western journalist since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022.

Here are the key points of their strange, freewheeling, and occasionally comical encounter.

Putin doesn't think Ukraine is a real country

"Your basic education was in history, as I understand? If you don't mind, I will take only thirty seconds, or one minute, to give you a little historical background."

That was how Vladimir Putin, speaking through an interpreter, kicked off what turned out to be a nearly 30-minute lecture on the intertwined history of Russia and Ukraine.

His point? To portray Ukraine as a creation of imperialist powers with no identity of its own and no real claim to sovereignty. (Never mind that Russia itself was created by Eastern Europeans colonising vast swathes of Eurasia.)

Starting with the election of Prince Rurik to the throne of Novgorod in 862 AD, he described how successive empires, including the Soviet Union, shaped the modern boundaries of Ukraine by transferring land from Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Crimea.

"So," Putin concluded, "we have every reason to affirm that Ukraine is an artificial state that was shaped at Stalin's will."

Carlson quickly pushed back, asking the president if he thought that Hungary had the right to take its land back from Ukraine, or that other nations have the right to return to their 17th-century borders.

After a long pause, Putin replied that he wasn't sure – but that, given the nature of Stalin's repressive regime, it would be "understandable" if they tried.

He then told a personal anecdote about taking a road trip through the Soviet Union in the early 1980s and encountering Hungarian Ukrainians, who still spoke Hungarian and considered themselves Hungarians.

At least, he clarified, he had never told Hungarian president Viktor Orban to his face that he could annex any part of Ukraine.

'Stop supplying weapons and it will be over within weeks'

Back in the present day, Putin had a simple demand for the United States: stop supplying weapons to Ukraine.

Do that, the president proclaimed, and the whole war "will be over within weeks".

That rather ominous statement came in response to Carlson asking whether Putin was doing everything he could to find a diplomatic solution, and why he couldn't simply get on the phone to Joe Biden to end the conflict – which Carlson has repeatedly described as a proxy war between the US and Russia.

"What's to work out? It's very simple," said Putin. "If you want to stop fighting, you need to stop supplying weapons... what's easier? Why would I call him?

“What should I talk him about? Or beg him for what?

"'You are going to deliver such and such weapons to Ukraine – oh, I'm afraid, please don't'? What is there to talk about?"

Although Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has insisted that his country is not losing the war, some experts are sceptical about his ability to retake the territory still occupied by Russia.

After stunning the world by repulsing Russia's initial invasion, Ukraine's long-awaited counteroffensive has stalled, and future support from the US and the European Union is in limbo after objections from sceptical politicians.

Putin claims Boris Johnson shot down peace attempts

Throughout the interview, Putin insisted that Russia is willing to negotiate and that Ukraine and the USA, rather than the country that invaded Ukraine, are the main barriers to peace.

As part of that, he referenced longstanding reports in Ukrainian and other media that a potential peace deal was scuppered in April 2022 by then British prime minister Boris Johnson.

“[Zelensky] put his signature and then he himself said, ‘we were ready to sign it and the war would have been over long ago’. However, Prime Minister Johnson came talk to us out of it, and we've missed that chance," Putin said.

"Where is Mr Johnson now? And the war continues."

Johnson himself has denied those claims, calling them "total nonsense" and "Russian propaganda".

And while his opposition to negotiations with Putin is a matter of public record, the idea that he was the deciding factor in Ukraine's decision – or that he shot down a peace deal that would otherwise have been viable – is far from proven.

No plans to release jailed US journalist

Carlson's interview with Putin offered slim hope for Evan Gershkovich, an American journalist for The Wall Street Journal who has been imprisoned in Russia on charges of espionage for nearly a year.

"I want to ask you directly," said Carlson, "without getting into the details 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."

After a long pause, and a heavy sigh, Putin refused. He claimed that Gershkovich was "caught red handed" receiving classified information, "and doing it covertly".

He also suggested that Gershkovich was “working for the US special services” and was “essentially controlled by the US authorities”.

The Journal has insisted that Mr Gershkovich is innocent and that his activities fell strictly under the umbrella of legitimate journalism.

Carlson, a fellow journalist, nevertheless seemed at least somewhat sympathetic to Putin's framing, saying: "The guy's obviously not a spy, he's a kid. And maybe he was breaking your laws in some way, but he's not a super-spy."

'De-Nazification' means whatever we say it means

Putin, alongside many Russian propogandists, has long claimed that Russia's invasion of Ukraine was about "de-Nazifying" the country. He repeated those claims at length in Thursday's interview.

However, despite repeated probing from Carlson, he never quite managed to define exactly what "de-Nazification" would mean or why it justified an armed invasion.

He described how some Ukrainian nationalists collaborated with the Nazi occupation during the Second World War, and claimed that the country remains a hotbed of neo-Nazism today.

(He did not mention the Soviet general Andrey Vlasov, who led a brigade of Russian collaborators against Stalin's forces, or the fact that Putin's Russia has served as an inspiration for numerous neo-Nazis in the US and Europe.)

Hence, Putin claimed, Russia's war in Ukraine cannot end because such ideologies have not yet been stamped out, and nor has the Ukrainian government agreed to do so as part of a peace process.

Carlson tried to push his pet topics, with little success

One striking facet of the interview was how frequently Carlson, who was fired by Fox News last year numerous accusations of bigotry and misleading journalism, took the opportunity to push his particular hobby horses.

Faced with a more or less unique opportunity to confront one of the most powerful men in the world, who is responsible for launching one of the bloodiest conflicts on European soil in decades, Carlson chose to quiz Putin about whether he was a "Christian leader" – and other topics close to Carlson's heart.

"Do you see the supernatural at work as you look out across what's happening in the world now? Do you see God at work? Do you ever think to yourself, 'these are forces that are not human'?"

After a pause, Putin answered: "No, to be honest. I don't think so."

At two points, Carlson – a longtime Sinosceptic – asked Putin about the rising danger of China to the US and other countries, such as asking if he was worried that developing countries were becoming "dominated" by Chinese influence.

"We have heard these bogeyman stories before," said Putin. "China's foreign policy is not aggressive; its idea is always to look for compromise.... it is to your own detriment, Mr Tucker, that you are limiting cooperation with China."

Carlson also frequently sought Putin's agreement on his belief that the US and other countries are no longer controlled by elected politicians, but by a deep state bureaucracy, or that Ukraine is effectively controlled by foreign interests.

Putin, though, did not always play ball, saying that he believed Zelensky has the freedom to negotiate a peace deal, and that a change of opinion among US elites could support that.

On one of these topics, at least, Putin was expansive: the threat of artificial intelligence and the prospect of using technology to create a new form of humanity.

"Due to genetic researches, it is now possible to create a superhuman: a specialised human being, a genetically engineered athlete, scientist, military man....

"The time will come to reach an international agreement on how to regulate these things."

A softball encounter with lots of agreement

In advance of his interview, Carlson made the bold claim that not a "single Western journalist" had bothered to interview the Russian president since the conflict began nearly two years ago.

He was quickly contradicted by the Kremlin itself, which said that many other reporters had asked and been turned down because of their supposed pro-Western bias. Carlson, meanwhile, was chosen because "he has a position which differs" from other English-language media.

Indeed, Carlson has a long history of pro-Putin advocacy. In 2017, he asked: "Why is Vladimir Putin such a bad guy?" In 2019, he claimed the US should "take the side of Russia" in any conflict with Ukraine. Ever since, he has opposed American support for the war and defended Russia's conduct.

Thursday's interview largely continued in that vein. Although Carlson sometimes tried to grill the Russian leader or hold him to account, there were also plenty of soft-serve questions and chummy exchanges.

When Carlson asked Putin who he thought blew up the Nord Stream oil pipeline, which runs under the sea between Russia and Germany, the two men quickly agreed that it was the CIA or some other Nato agency.

They also agreed that American support for Ukraine is destroying the international stature of the US dollar, and that Nato helped provoke the war by accepting Eastern European countries. (The question of why so many of Russia’s neighbours and near-neighbours felt they needed to join a defensive organisation was not one that Carlson troubled to ask.)

Nor did Carlson spend much time pushing back on Putin's claims or challenging his decision to invade Ukraine in the first place.

Perhaps, then, it was fitting that Putin was the one to end the interview.

"Shall we end here, or is there anything else?" said the 71-year-old, after concluding his answer to a question.

"No, I think that's great,” murmured Carlson. “Thank you, Mr President,"