🌍 How to make sense of Tucker Carlson's Putin interview

Plus: The militias in South Sudan

Hi Intriguer. Part of the fun of diplomat life is the sheer adventure. You’re white-knuckling a landing at the world’s most dangerous airport one day, then watching an unpredictable election unfold the next.

But a downside is that you’re sometimes going places you’d rather not go, to meet people you’d really rather not meet.

Yet that’s the job. And it’s what comes to mind as we delve into today’s briefing on a conversation many folks might wish had never happened: Tucker Carlson’s interview with Vladimir Putin.

- Jeremy Dicker, Managing Editor

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TODAY’S NEWS

Israel pushes into Rafah. Israeli forces have entered Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah early this morning (Monday), announcing they’ve freed two hostages. The Hamas-run health ministry says heavy airstrikes on the city, where more than a million displaced Palestinians are sheltering, killed 67 people. It comes after US President Joe Biden described Israel’s response in Gaza as “over the top”.

Trump and NATO. Former US president Donald Trump has raised the blood pressure in European capitals after suggesting he wouldn’t defend “delinquent” countries from a Russian attack if they didn’t meet defence spending requirements. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg hit back, saying Trump’s approach “undermines all of our security”.

Pakistan political crisis deepens as opposition delivers upset. Protests broke out across Pakistan after candidates backing jailed former leader Imran Khan won the most seats in Thursday’s election, despite a government crackdown. With no outright winner, several parties have announced they’ll enter negotiations to form a coalition government, prolonging Pakistan’s political vacuum.

Finland’s new president. Former Finnish prime minister Alexander Stubb has narrowly won Finland’s presidential election, seven years after leaving politics and vowing never to return. Stubb, who heavily criticised Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has pledged to use his post to “ensure Finland promotes peace”.

Qatar releases eight Indian ‘spies’. Qatar has released eight Indian ex-naval officers reportedly accused of spying on behalf of Israel, some 18 months after their arrest caused a rift in Qatar-India ties. The prisoners were initially handed death sentences, which were later dropped in December.

TOP STORY

How to make sense of Tucker Carlson's Putin interview

That’s a small table

US pundit Tucker Carlson released his highly-anticipated yet controversial interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday night (US time).

It was highly-anticipated because this was Putin's first Western media appearance since he invaded Ukraine in early 2022.

And it was controversial because of the real tension between the value of hearing a world leader speak, versus:

  • The reality of them using the platform for their own objectives

  • The calls to hold them to account (Putin is wanted for war crimes)

  • The plight of some 22 journalists now languishing in Russian jails, and

  • The last two years of rejecting other less sympathetic interview requests

At its heart, you could say it's about the tension between dealing with the world as it is, versus the world as it ought to be.

So with that in mind, here are five things that jumped out at us from Putin’s interview.

First, it was Putin’s interview: the Kremlin itself says it granted Carlson the interview because he’s more Moscow-friendly, and the timing clearly suits, too (as US Congress debates aid to Ukraine, and during a US election year). To boot, Putin kept Carlson waiting for hours, and often dominated the proceedings.

Second, Putin spends a quarter of the two-hour interview delving into his own version of history with some real howlers, such as claiming his own withdrawal from Kyiv was a gesture of goodwill (rather than a military defeat). Putin eventually gets to his point to justify his invasion: "Ukraine is an artificial state that was shaped at Stalin's will".

Third, it's notable how much Putin dwells on Western leaders, often painting them as snubbing or betraying him. It's a reflection both of his yearning to be a historic figure, as well as his populist instincts - claims to foreign victimhood can help bolster domestic unity, while adding an aura of righteousness to his rule.

Fourth, in shrugging off Carlson’s request to free Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich (who's facing espionage charges he denies), Putin draws no real distinction between spying and journalism. Instead, he makes clear that Gershkovich’s fate is tied to the release of Russian spy Vadim Krasikov, who’s serving a life sentence in Germany for an assassination there.

And finally - there were some unexpected moments, such as Putin being asked (and answering) whether he sees God at work: "no, to be honest" was his reply.

How did the world react?

While Tucker’s supporters emphasised the value in hearing from Putin direct, folks in Poland were disturbed by how much they featured in Putin’s history, even prompting their foreign ministry to release a statement on his “10 lies”.

Former British leader Boris Johnson (another recurring character in Putin’s history) wrote it was all “ludicrous”, while Germany’s Olaf Scholz said the interview was "absurd". And The Wall Street Journal reiterated that “Evan is a journalist and journalism is not a crime.

Of course, as you might imagine, the interview also touched raw nerves among the 40 million people living in the country Putin described as 'artificial': Ukraine.

INTRIGUE’S TAKE

At the start of the interview, Putin jokes whether this is a “talk show or a serious conversation?” Our sense is it was neither. It was a presentation, largely unchallenged, of Putin's worldview. And it mostly confirms what we already knew: he's a revisionist, using his version of history to justify his invasion.

So is the world better or worse off having heard this interview? Probably neither. The world has already moved on.

And that brings us to the bigger question of whether Putin achieved his likely aims, such as stoking Western divisions, projecting a calm sense of inevitability, undermining America’s faith in its leaders, and shifting the war further to his advantage. But our sense is he probably achieved very little.

It’s one thing to rewrite history, another to be dull while you do it, and still another to do it all on the eve of the Super Bowl. While 115 million Americans watched the Chiefs play the 49ers yesterday, the Senate finally pushed through a bill to keep backing Ukraine. It now goes to the House.

Also worth noting:

  • Carlson’s critics have highlighted topics missing from the interview, like Putin’s treatment of local opposition figures and journalists, and the staggering casualties Russia has taken so far.

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MEANWHILE, ELSEWHERE…

  1. 🇦🇲 Armenia: The International Criminal Court (ICC), which has a warrant out for Vladimir Putin’s arrest, welcomed Armenia as its latest member last week. Russia, a traditional Armenian partner, called Yerevan’s decision to join the ICC an “unfriendly step”.

  2. 🇷🇸 Serbia: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has told journalists that the EU risks losing Serbia to China unless Serbia joins the bloc soon. Serbia applied to join the EU in 2009, but has seen little progress in its accession in part due to its troubled ties with Kosovo.

  3. 🇮🇳 India: The first US-India space mission will deliver the first hyper-detailed view of Earth, which will help map our planet’s land and ice every 12 days. The upcoming mission comes after the US and India agreed to deepen their scientific cooperation last year.

  4. 🇻🇪 Venezuela: Guyana says it’s obtained satellite images showing Venezuelan military movement near their shared border. The development could be a breach of the peace deal signed by the two nations in December, after Venezuela announced moves to annex a large chunk of Guyana.

  5. 🇫🇷 Mayotte (France): France has unveiled plans to revoke birthplace citizenship in its overseas territory of Mayotte after weeks of protests there about insecurity and immigration. The idea is to reduce “the attractiveness” of the archipelago for prospective migrants from the nearby Comoros Islands.

EXTRA INTRIGUE

🤣 Your weekly roundup of the world’s lighter news 

  • An old Oxford jail is offering a romantic experience for St Valentine’s Day: a candle-lit dinner in the cells that once hosted murderers.

  • A Frenchman has won a Guinness World Record for the world's tallest structure using matchsticks, after initially being disqualified for using non-compliant matchsticks.

  • On the topic of world records, a dragon made with 38,000 balloons in a Hong Kong mall has also won a Guinness World Record.

  • A floating sauna has come to the rescue after a Tesla plunged into the cold, cold waters of the Oslo fjord.

  • Folks in Australia have spotted an incredibly rare white-and-black speckled dolphin.

  • And a UK Lord has taken to Twitter to protest against the new ‘Domino’s x Cadbury Creme Egg cookie’, adding “the executive team, the board and the shareholders should be ashamed of themselves.”

EXCERPT OF THE DAY

As a parting question, I asked Olonyi: “What are you going to do until your men are integrated?” But Olonyi didn’t hear me. The rebel general had opened another beer and returned to playing Angry Birds.

- Joshua Craze

Want an insight into the complicated politics of armed militias in South Sudan? We recommend you check out ‘Playing Angry Birds with an Exiled Rebel’ from our friends at The Dial!

DAILY POLL

Do you think Tucker Carlson was right to interview Putin?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

Last Thursday’s poll: Do you think Europe will fill the gap if Washington fails to send more military aid to Ukraine?

🟩🟩🟩🟩🟩🟩 💰 Yes, European countries will have no choice but to step up (49%)

🟨🟨🟨🟨🟨🟨 👎 No, they're already scraping the bottom of the barrel (49%)

⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️ ✍️ Other (write in!) (2%)

Your two cents:

  • 💰 SzKB: “Having no choice is a powerful motivation.”

  • 👎 V.P: “We’ve already seen Europe fail to hit its aid targets again and again, and dissent in the EU, especially from Eastern Europe, and rising protests will likely mean the EU won’t be able to fulfil its own aid promises, let alone fill the gap left by the US.”

  • ✍️ S: “Both European countries and the US will continue to support Ukraine after the politicians flex their muscles and pass a bill by the US.“

✍️ Corrections corner

Thanks to the Intriguers who pointed out that one of our references last week to Pakistan’s elections used the word ‘presidential’ instead of ‘parliamentary’! 🤦😂

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