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The reason Vladimir Putin sat down with Tucker Carlson is obvious — and important

There is no one besides Carlson — save perhaps for Donald Trump — who has done more to boost Russia’s image inside the GOP.

The Kremlin had its pick of the press corps to conduct Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first one-on-one interview with a Western media figure since he ordered the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. But rather than have Putin sit down with The New York Times or NBC News, the BBC or Le Monde, it provided access to Tucker Carlson, who posts his videos to X and his self-named website.

That’s because the Russians aren’t seeking a credible interview for a mass audience. They want to target right-wing Americans with propaganda at a crucial moment when Republicans have put the prospect of future U.S. aid to Ukraine on the ropes, without needing to worry about the interviewer’s forcing Putin to answer difficult questions. Carlson fits the bill perfectly. 

This pretense — that only Carlson was willing to break the media blockade — fits with his broader shtick.

Carlson framed the interview to his fans as an intrepid act of journalistic truth-telling. He tried to focus attention on “why I’m interviewing” Putin, posturing that “corrupt” Western reporters hadn’t “bothered” to speak with the Russian strongman since he ordered the illegal invasion of Ukraine in 2022. This pretense — that only Carlson was willing to break the media blockade — fits with his broader shtick, which relies on presenting himself as the source for secret knowledge that mainstream journalists refuse to reveal. 

But Carlson was lying. Reporters for outlets like CNN and the BBC pointed out that they had repeatedly sought their own interviews with Putin, only for their entreaties to be rejected (others noted the audacity of making such a claim when American journalists Evan Gershkovich and Alsu Kurmasheva are languishing in Russian jails for reporting from that country).

Indeed, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov subsequently acknowledged: “Mr. Carlson is not correct. In fact, there’s no way he could know this. We receive numerous requests for interviews with the president.” Rather, Peskov explained that the Kremlin has “no desire to communicate” with “traditional TV channels and large newspapers” because they aren’t “impartial.” Putin deigned to speak with Carlson because, by contrast, “he has a position that differs from the rest.”

What is that “position”? Carlson touts the aesthetics and policy outcomes of ethnonationalist, illiberal autocracies that punish immigrants and LGBTQ people while castigating pluralist, liberal democracies that do not. He has turned his programs, before and after leaving Fox, into showcases for the likes of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Poland’s Andrzej Duda and Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić. Putin fits firmly within this framework. And as the host soured on America’s diversity and its traditional creed in recent years, he groomed the GOP to be more sympathetic to Russia and its interests. 

During Putin-friendly Donald Trump’s presidency, Carlson argued that the U.S. had no interest in deterring Russia from “messing around” in Eastern Europe, including the Baltic member states of NATO. He fiercely criticized U.S. military aid to Ukraine, arguing that it would only “antagonize Russia” and exclaiming that he was “root[ing] for Russia” (he later claimed to have been “joking,” though he added that “we should probably take the side of Russia if we have to choose between Russia and Ukraine”). 

As Western intelligence agencies warned in late 2021 and early 2022 of Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian border, Carlson alternated between offering passionate defenses of Putin, arguing that the Russian president “just wants to keep his western border secure,” and scoffing at the possibility of a Russian invasion. Once Russia invaded in February 2022, Carlson pivoted to blaming the war on Ukraine and President Joe Biden and doing everything in his power to convince his viewers that aiding Ukraine wasn’t in America’s interest.

The Kremlin’s assessment that Carlson’s coverage helped its interests was correct.

Carlson’s pro-Russia coverage of its invasion of Ukraine drew harsh criticism from Democrats, some Republicans and other media figures, and it even reportedly “disturbed” Fox founder Rupert Murdoch. But he did have fans within the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus. 

Mother Jones’ David Corn reported in March 2023 that a Russian government agency had distributed a memo to Russian media outlets urging them “to use as much as possible fragments of broadcasts of the popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who sharply criticizes the actions of the United States [and] NATO, their negative role in unleashing the conflict in Ukraine, [and] the defiantly provocative behavior from the leadership of the Western countries and NATO towards the Russian Federation and towards President Putin, personally.” 

By that point, clips from Carlson’s show had become regular features of Russian propaganda channels, which sought to highlight — and generate — dissent within Western nations. As the war continued, a Carlson-Kremlin feedback loop emerged: Reports from Russian government news outlets would get parroted by the Fox host, then clips of his reports would air on other Russian state outlets. When Fox kicked Carlson to the curb last year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov denounced the decision, while a prominent pro-Putin host for Russian state TV said his network would “happily offer you a job if you wish to carry on as a presenter and host.” 

The Kremlin’s assessment that Carlson’s coverage helped its interests was correct. At Fox, he was among the GOP’s most influential figures and had a huge audience; he used that platform as a clearinghouse for pro-Russia talking points that undermined support for Ukraine within the Republican Party. There is no one — save perhaps Trump — more responsible for the GOP’s rising opposition to providing Ukraine with military aid, which remains stuck in Congress as the conflict has turned into a war of attrition

So while Carlson wants people to focus on why he sought an interview with Putin, the real question is why Putin wanted to sit down with him. The answer is both obvious and important — he expects Carlson to make him a more popular figure on the American right and boost his war of conquest in the process.