Aurel Braun is a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Toronto and an associate at Harvard University’s Davis Center.
For several days, Tucker Carlson’s smiling face was ubiquitous on the Russian state and social media. Visiting Moscow, he received wall-to-wall coverage, rock-star treatment, and praise as possibly the sole credible Western “journalist.” His interview with Vladimir Putin, who has an arrest warrant issued against him by the International Criminal Court, has been portrayed by the Kremlin as an historic event.
Russia is also the country where Western journalists, including Evan Gershkovich from the Wall Street Journal, remain jailed on the most dubious espionage charges, and where more than a thousand independent journalists had to flee abroad as the Kremlin introduced draconian censorship laws in the wake of Russia’s all-out aggression against Ukraine in February, 2022. Moscow criminalized even the use of the term “war,” with only Mr. Putin’s euphemism “special military operation” permitted.
On Thursday, Mr. Putin sent a message in his long, passive-aggressive and rather bizarre interview to what he calls “the collective West,” and also to his own people before the predetermined March presidential elections. He aimed to damage Ukraine and help Donald Trump. Here, both the message and the messenger are crucial, and context as well as content are vital to appreciate the Kremlin’s aims.
In its conflict against Ukraine, Russia is using a hybrid approach, and information warfare is pivotal to this. For the latter, the Putin regime has reached back to the old KGB concept of “reflexive control,” which hinges on a type of Soviet disinformation, maskirovka, that combines denial and deception, but fundamentally plays on the predilections of the target to induce a favoured predetermined decision. Here, reflexive control plays on the West’s justified fear of war, its aversion to escalation and popular distrust of government. In the implementation of this concept, the messenger is key.
Since February, 2022, the Kremlin has turned down requests for interviews with Mr. Putin by a variety of distinguished journalists from Western media outlets, including the BBC and CNN. So why would they use Mr. Carlson? After all, Mr. Carlson, who had the largest viewership across Fox News, was abruptly fired last April, since his conspiracy-laden and defamatory broadcasts made him too toxic and expensive. Once he lost his privileged perch at Fox, his influence declined precipitously, even though he subsequently built his own streaming service and distributes a talk show on X (formerly Twitter).
There are at least three reasons why the Kremlin would still use Mr. Carlson. First, he is extremely close to Mr. Trump. The latter even stated that he would consider Mr. Carlson as a running mate. Second, Mr. Carlson has voiced his admiration for Mr. Putin, has been rooting for Moscow and called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “sweaty and rat-like” dictator. He has been a propaganda gift for the Kremlin, especially for the past two years. Third, Mr. Carlson ideologically represents what I would call the Lindbergh-nativist fringe of the Republican party, which promotes crude isolationism and tends to admire authoritarian leaders. Those fringe Republicans are instrumental to blocking critical aid to Ukraine in Congress.
It takes an Occam’s razor to cut through Mr. Putin’s manipulative morass of distortions, brazen rewriting of history and Orwellian inversions in the interview. He illuminated, though, two key themes. He portrayed Russia as the perennial victim, threatened by NATO and Ukraine, fearful of aggression. His approach, however, was more mafia than Machiavelli; he blamed Ukraine, the actual victim, for the devastation it has suffered from Russian aggression – essentially for not surrendering sovereign territory quickly enough and refusing to readily commit political suicide. The solution Mr. Putin proposed, including the West abandoning Ukraine, involves vast territorial concessions by Kyiv and a neutered sovereignty that would result in a dismembered and defenceless Ukraine – likely a prelude to new Russian demands in Europe. The message was also directed at his own population, telling them that just as Russia can move with immunity internationally, the unassailable Putinite regime can act with impunity domestically.
Yet, this may not turn out to be quite the information warfare coup that Mr. Putin envisions. Using Mr. Carlson, who is so close to Mr. Trump, is such a clear attempt to manipulate the American elections that it might just fuel new concerns about Russian interference and thereby harm Mr. Trump’s prospects with the larger American public and even boost Congressional support for Ukraine. Should Mr. Trump win in 2024, he might not be the “Manchurian candidate” that Mr. Putin hopes. More of an extreme narcissist than an ideologue, history shows that Mr. Trump can turn from lavish praise to blind hatred in a New York minute.