Putin, however, took full advantage of the opportunity to plant seeds of doubt America’s aid for Ukraine and the U.S. political system.
Here are the takeaways from Putin’s sit-down with Carlson.
The main message Putin sought to convey to Americans: There’s no point helping Ukraine with more money and weapons. And Carlson, who has himself previously questioned U.S. support for Ukraine as it seeks to defend its and its land in the face of Russia’s assault, was all too happy to help deliver that message.
“If you really want to stop fighting, you need to stop supplying weapons. It will be over within a few weeks. That’s it,” Putin claimed, adding that it was up to the U.S. to tell Ukraine to come to the negotiating table.
But that’s not really the full story, as Putin himself made clear in two telling responses to Carlson’s follow-up questions.
First, asked whether Russia had achieved its war aims, Putin said: “No. We haven’t achieved our aims yet because one of them is de-nazification.” The claim that Russia is seeking to “de-nazify” Ukraine is widely seen as code for the removal of the country’s democratically elected (Jewish) president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In a strong indication of what he meant by his comment, Putin said “we have to get rid of those ” who he claimed, without basis, “support” Nazism.
Second, when Carlson asked whether Putin would “be satisfied with the territory that you have now,” the Russian autocrat refused to respond, returning to his point de-nazification and insisting he hadn’t yet finished answering the previous question. We’ll take that as another no.
In granting Carlson an interview, Putin gained unfettered access to a large American audience ahead of the U.S. presidential election later this year.
It’s no secret who Carlson would back in the likely Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden rerun. But it was Putin, not Carlson, who first brought up Trump, saying he had enjoyed a “personal relationship” with the former U.S. president, as well as with George W. Bush.
Putin also ran through the ways in which past U.S. presidents — in his decades in power he has seen four of them come and go — had failed to reach consensus with Russia on security matters, even when he claimed they had wanted to.
The point he was making: The U.S. political system is, to borrow a phrase, an undrained swamp, and American democracy an illusion.
“It sounds like you’re describing a system that’s not run by the who are elected, in your telling,” a helpful Carlson summarized for the president.
“That’s right, that’s right,” a pleased Putin responded. “It is not the personality of the leader. It is the elite’s mindset.”
Anyone who can dent Putin’s armor is kept lightyears away from the president — whether they’re the wives of Russian soldiers, independent journalists or anti-war election challenger Boris Nadezhdin.
Those who do get to speak to Putin are always hand-picked by Moscow, and Carlson was no exception (as the Kremlin’s spokesperson confirmed this week).
Anticipating the criticism that the interview would do little more than facilitate Kremlin propaganda, both Carlson and Putin took great pains to head off the impression that they were in cahoots — but any moments of tension were brief and ultimately insignificant, with Putin emerging on top.
“Are we having a talk show or a conversation?” Putin sniped in the opening minutes of the interview, before delivering a 20-plus-minute historical soliloquy.
Carlson, who failed to fact-check or divert the Russian president’s fanciful history lesson, instead warned viewers in an opening statement that when answering his question on why Russia invaded Ukraine, “Putin went on for a very long time, probably half an hour, the history of Russia going back to the eighth century. And honestly, we thought this was a filibustering technique and found it annoying.”
But Carlson immediately softened even that blow, decreeing that ultimately, he believed Putin was “sincere” and praising the president’s “encyclopedic knowledge.”
Meanwhile, Carlson avoided any topics that could have been sensitive for the Kremlin: reports of Russian war crimes in places like Bucha and Mariupol, the International Criminal Court arrest warrant for Putin, Alexei Navalny and other political prisoners, and Russia’s mobilization and wartime death toll. He even steered clear of any questions the upcoming Russian presidential election, and this week’s disqualification of anti-war candidate Boris Nadezhdin.
Tesla and X boss Elon Musk has had divided loyalties when it comes to Russia’s war on Ukraine, initially assisting Kyiv, before appearing to succumb to Kremlin propaganda and talking points. In his Carlson interview, Putin took the opportunity to stroke the billionaire’s ego.
“There are reports that Elon Musk has already had the chip implanted in the human brain in the USA,” Putin told Carlson.
Asked what he thought that, the president said: “I think there’s no stopping Elon Musk. He will do as he sees fit. Nevertheless, you’ll need to find some common ground with him. Search for ways to persuade him. I think he’s a smart person. I truly believe he is.”
One open question ahead of the interview was whether Carlson would ask Evan Gershkovich, the American Wall Street Journal reporter who has been held in pre-trial detention in Russia for almost a year on what are broadly seen as trumped-up espionage charges.
Carlson raised the possibility of a prisoner exchange involving Gershkovich, whom he called a “kid” and “obviously not a spy.”
Putin objected to that characterization of Gershkovich, reiterating the Kremlin’s claims he was caught “red-handed” with confidential information.
But the president did say the Russian and American special services “were in contact with each other” on the case and there was no “taboo to settle this issue.”
Putin then mentioned “a person serving a sentence in an allied country of the U.S.”
While he didn’t name him, Putin was clearly referring to Vadim Krasikov, an FSB agent serving a life sentence in Germany for assassinating former Chechen insurgent and Georgian national Zelimkhan Khangoshvili in broad daylight in Berlin in 2019. “That person, due to patriotic sentiments, eliminated a bandit in one of the European capitals,” Putin mused.
It’s a signal that the Kremlin is seeking Krasikov’s release from Germany, in exchange for freeing Gershkovich.
Putin claimed not to recall when he last spoke to President Biden. “Do I have to remember everything?” Putin mused. “I have my own things to do. We have domestic political affairs.”
Asked why he hasn’t spoken with his U.S. counterpart, Putin said: “Why would I call him? What should I talk to him ? Or beg him for what?”
But he added that “certain contacts are being maintained” when it comes to lines of communication between Washington and Moscow.
At just over two hours, the interview recorded in the Kremlin on Tuesday was the second-longest Carlson has ever published (beating Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s 29 minutes and former U.S. President Donald Trump’s 46 minutes).
Still, Putin didn’t quite get to the 147 minutes given to self-described misogynist and accused human trafficker Andrew Tate. Better luck next time.
“Who blew up Nord Stream?” Carlson asked Putin, referring to the mysterious blasts in September 2022 that ripped apart the Russia-to-Germany undersea gas pipelines.
“You, for sure,” Putin answered.
“I was busy that day!” a flustered Carlson responded, suddenly finding himself in the role of suspect in a KGB interrogation.
Putin seemed to enjoy the cosplay, telling the pundit that although he may personally have an alibi, the CIA did not.
Asked whether he had any evidence for the claim, Putin said it came down to a question of who had the motive and the resources.
Several countries have been publicly blamed for the explosions, with varying degrees of evidence. Ukraine has said Russia was responsible (which the Kremlin has denied), while Moscow has previously blamed the U.K., without presenting any evidence to support that assertion either.