Putin - focused on 'the great game'

Tucker in Putinland

A two-hour long interview with Vladimir Putin told us little new about anything, but stands in intriguing contrast to the routine media spin, argues Paul Demarty

A lot of stupid things are said by well-meaning bourgeois commentators about ‘polarisation’. Yet it is undeniable that a very large number of media events nowadays seem to work like Rorschach tests. One subject sees a butterfly, another a bomb; a third, like Nick Frost in the sitcom Spaced, “a butterfly … with a bomb”.

What were the pundit class to make of Tucker Carlson’s interview with Vladimir Putin? The majority - it has to be said, composed of ‘sensible’ liberals and never-Trump conservatives - saw proof that Carlson was either a paid asset of Russia or a willing dupe, or both. As for Putin, he was losing his marbles, raving about the ancient Russian-dominated giant state called ‘Kjivan Rus’ and apparently unable to answer any direct question (as and when Carlson dared to attempt inserting one). Putin’s history was bunk. Perhaps it was not Putin at all, but some kind of body double. So it goes on.

Carlson’s boosters could respond that he had, at least, bothered to take the trouble to conduct the interview - a feat denied to the general run of western journalists. He had not restricted himself wholly to softball questions. That said, he was clearly not in control of the occasion. He began by asking Putin why he had invaded Ukraine; having promised to give some background for “30 seconds or a minute”, the Russian president embarked on a half-hour-long monologue that began with Kyivan Rus in the 880s end ended with that fateful day two years ago. Carlson repeatedly attempted to get Putin back on track, and was every time swatted aside with slightly menacing sarcasm. “Is this a talk show, or a serious discussion?” he asked the host repeatedly, before returning to the finer points of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

If Carlson is an agent of the Russian state, he was not treated very well at all by his ‘boss’. When, inevitably, his soliloquy brought him to the subject of the Central Intelligence Agency, Putin noted that Carlson had been rejected by the agency years before: “They are, after all, a serious organisation.” Miaow! That, perhaps, was the grain of truth in the hysterical criticisms of Carlson for agreeing to this. What he clearly agreed to - this “serious discussion” - was always intended, by Putin at least, to be more or less entirely a platform for his own views; and he did a better job of taking over this interview than he did of taking over Kyiv.


So far as those views go, people who have followed Putin’s statements over the last few years will have found precious little to surprise them. The point of this thousand-year long historical narrative is that there is a continuous Russian nation stretching from Kyivan Rus to the present.

Ukraine, meanwhile, is merely part of the borderland between Russia and the Tatars to the south and the rest of Europe to the west. Its territory has been chopped and changed so many times, between competing great powers adjacent to it, that it has, in reality, a very weak national identity. The present borders were largely drawn by the Bolsheviks after the revolution - Putin is very critical of the Soviet nationalities policy, and seems to blame Ukrainian nationalism, at least in its separatist form, on communist encouragement of ‘indigenisation’. There is no real sense in which the Donbass ‘belongs’ to Ukraine; it was a mere administrative division. Still less Crimea, which was reassigned to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev as a basically cosmetic measure.

In 1939-45, the Soviets reaped what their nationalities policy had sown. Ukrainian nationalists collaborated extensively with the Nazis. Only at enormous human cost was the Nazi onslaught beaten back - but the collaborators are the heroes of today’s Ukrainian nationalists. With the break-up of the Soviet Union (initiated by Russia, he conceded, confessing not to understand why), and the breaking of western promises not to expand Nato, Ukraine’s natural friendliness towards Russia was repeatedly disrupted by western meddling and ultra-nationalist madness. This culminated in the 2014 coup, the Donbas conflict, and finally the decision to invade.

None of this stuff, again, is new. It is the extended justification Putin has given for the war more or less since its outset. Much of the pearl-clutching has been attached to his criticisms of the claims of Ukrainian nationalism, but that is where he is on strongest ground. Ukrainian nationalism is concentrated in the west, in territories which were contested most frequently. It was never representative of much of the east of the current territory, which is why Russia had no problem essentially annexing large parts of it. It is not unusually fantastical for a nationalism, but fantastical it certainly is.

But what, then, of Putin’s retailing of what amount to just-so stories about 9th century princes? (The English have our own such fairy tales, but still.) What about his decision that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was in fact Russian? It is not that no plausible claim can be made on this point, but simply that Putin, like many contemporary historians, is guilty of the cardinal sin of ‘presentism’. The wars of five centuries ago are, somehow, the same war Putin chooses to fight today.

He returned at length to a more modern example of the same thing. “Have you achieved your aims?”, Carlson asked him of the current state of the Ukraine war. “No, we haven’t achieved our aims yet, because one of them is deNazification,” he replied. In vain might one object that no greater fillip could be imagined for Ukraine’s far right than this invasion. Both Putin’s attempt at ‘deep history’ and his evocation of the fight against Hitler are, in the end, plainly part of a world view focused entirely on the matter of great power conflict, and the establishment of suitable security arrangements. The great betrayal of the 1990s and 2000s, in the end, was the west’s refusal to build Russia’s perceived interests into the post-cold war architecture. From there, every gambit of the liberal humanitarians and neo-conservatives began to look like a threat.

This outlook is typically dismissed as mad paranoia in the western media, but in western foreign policy circles it is merely the common currency. Containing Russia has exercised the great minds of this sphere since, at least, the 19th century. Orthodoxy has long been to break up the country into smaller and therefore more ‘manageable’ chunks. (Nowadays, this often goes under the name of “decolonising” Russia, in the rather grating fashion of contemporary academics.) It is not clear that Putin even has much of an ideology beyond preventing any such outcome. ‘DeNazification’ - “this means the prohibition of all kinds of neo-Nazi movements”, he further specifies - clearly amounts to reabsorbing Ukraine, or at least a lot of it, into Russia’s sphere of influence, and therefore exercising some level of control over its politics.

Putin’s focus on ‘the great game’ became more obvious, as the interview went on. He touched on the disastrous effects of the anti-Russian front on Europe’s economy, which - he reasoned - ultimately made it economically infeasible to continue supporting Ukraine. He made some (perhaps over-optimistic) comments about dedollarisation. He notably resisted being drawn into US partisan politics (clearly some kind of subordinate aim on Carlson’s part, as well it might be). He insisted that the coming multipolar world made it more important for major powers to cooperate and compromise, and recognise each others’ interests. Who was president of the US mattered little, he said, since there was a permanent political and security apparatus - an assertion even Wikipedia calls a “conspiracy theory”, but seems to be representative of the experience of a man who, after all, leads an openly securocratic state. He can talk to the CIA and maybe get results; but what on earth is the point of talking to secretary of state Antony Blinken?


Leaving aside a closing exchange on the fate of US journalist Evan Gershkovich (Putin was happy to release him, if the price was right, but pointedly noted that this too could be resolved by the two countries’ security services if the will was there), that was more or less it. It was, by the standards of Carlson’s output since jumping ship to Twitter from Fox News, a success. Some 200 million views were recorded (though how many of those slogged through the whole thing is unknown).

Mainstream bourgeois commentators are, of course, correct that the interview was hardly the most adversarial ever conducted. Nonetheless, one is left at least with some picture of this quite important person’s actual goals: a picture that is one he wants us to see, of course, but not useless for that. The contrast to the typical ‘adversarial’ interview in the west is not flattering to the latter. The Paxmanisation of the political interview leads inevitably to a purely defensive strategy on the part of the interviewee. The interviewer asks increasingly leading questions - of the ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ variety - and the politician keeps to the safety of three memorised platitudinous soundbites.

Two hours of exposure to Putin-thought is rather trying, but at least gives us a somewhat rounded picture of his stances and objectives. A better interviewer than Carlson might have punctured his monologism; a better informed one might have pushed him harder on his dubious historical citations. The point of bourgeois political journalism is, however, to ‘protect’ ordinary people from serious political controversy.

Giving Putin two hours is dangerous, because it sets a precedent. Could Joe Biden offer a similarly detailed account of US strategy? Could Rishi Sunak do so for Britain?.