Tucker’s interview with Putin only makes sense if you know Russian history
Tucker Carlson’s interview with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin was a remarkable moment in history. Finally, the world has the opportunity to know why Putin might have a point regarding the West’s interference in Ukraine. But first, in this interview, the Russian president needed to explain the long-term patterns of his nation’s history. Regrettably, writes Orlando Figes, an award-winning author of numerous books on Russian history,
“Contemporary Russian politics are too often analysed without sufficient knowledge of Russian history. Yet, an understanding of the country’s past is essential to make sense of the development in Russia during the last thirty years”.
We can gather from Putin’s interview that his understanding of Russia is remarkably conservative. Not only does he firmly believe that Russia’s greatest strength lies in its traditional Orthodox values, but also that Russia’s isolation from the globalist agenda of Western oligarchs allows his country to preserve its Byzantine inheritance and old Slavonic culture and its Orthodox beliefs, untouched by the woke, postmodernist trends in Europe and North America. According to Putin, Mark Galeotti, a British historian and writer on Russian history, explains:
“Russia is not an Asiatic country, or yet – even though some use the term – a ‘Eurasian’ hybrid. It is European, but proper European. It was Russians who defended Europe time and again, sometimes from enemies without, such as the Golden Horde, at others those within, whether would-be conquerors such as Napoleon or Hitler, or forces of chaos and deviance. In other words, the line is that Russia holds to the true European values at a time when the nations to its West have abandoned them. Its Orthodox faith is the genuine form of Christianity, just as its social conservatism is simply a refusal to cater to degenerate fads and post-modern moral subjectivism”.
Although the Russian leader is an avowed supporter of traditional Orthodox values, at first, he was quite willing to be a partner with the “West”, assuming that so long as Russia backed the US-led “Global War on Terror”, then the Western leaders would treat Russia with more respect and not threaten its national borders. During his first years in the presidential office, writes Russian history professor Orlando Figes,
“Putin looked to further Russia’s integration with the West. In interviews he spelled out his vision of the country as ‘part of Western European culture’, and said that he was open to the possibility of Russian joining NATO and the European Union. Everything depended on how Western institutions would respond, on how NATO, in particular, would act in regions where the Russians had security concerns, historic links and sensitivities, which, if offended or ignored, might provoke an aggressive response from Moscow … Russia wanted to be part of Europe, to be treated with respect. But if it was rejected by the West’s leaders, of if they humiliated it, Russia would rebuild itself and arm itself against the West”.
Interestingly enough, much of Putin’s anger regarding the situation in Ukraine is not just aimed at the Western elites but also directed towards Lenin and Stalin. For him, those Communist dictators had little regard for Russian history and allowed historic Russian lands to be gained by what is now the independent nation of Ukraine. That being so, Putin appears to infer in his interview that Ukraine should have taken only what it had when it had joined the USSR in 1922. This is an argument made also by the most famous of the Soviet dissidents and an outspoken critic of Communism, the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a major influence on Putin’s thinking.
In this context, little significance has been attached by Western intelligentsia to the Soviet “gift” to Ukraine. In 1954, Crimea was handed to Ukraine as a gift by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who was himself half-Ukrainian. This was so although Russia’s most important naval base was at Sevastopol in Crimea, a mainly Russian territory assigned to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic by Khrushchev, to mark the tercentenary of Russia’s union with Cossack hetmanate. Of course, there were no national boundaries between Russia and Ukraine in the former Soviet Union. But after 1991 the loss of Crimea was sorely felt by the Russians. A quarter of a million Russians died in the Crimean War, another war in defence of Christian Orthodoxy against the “West”. The region is also the symbolic home of the “Russian soul” since it is the birthplace of Russia’s Orthodox Christianity where Prince Vladimir had been baptised.
Vladimir the Great
Vladimir Sviatoslavich, also known as Vladimir the Great, was Grand Prince of Kiev and ruler of Kievan Rus from 980 to 1015. According to the Primary Chronicle, his conversion was a result of his search for the “True Faith”. “The previously cruel Vladimir … underwent a remarkable transformation, becoming filled with kindness and mercy towards his neighbours”. Grand Prince Vladimir is still venerated as a symbol of Russia’s sacred origins as a united family of Russians – the contemporary Russians, the Ukrainians and the Belarussians. They were all originally one nation and members of the same Slav family who historically share, in great part, the same language and the same Christian Orthodox faith.
When Kiev was at its height, Moscow was scarcely a township. The first reference to Moscow appears only in 1147, when Yuri Dolgoruky, soon to be Grand Prince of Kiev, arranged a meeting there. Back in those days Kiev was the very heart and soul of the Rus. Prior to the Mongol invasion at the start of the thirteenth century, Kiev had a population of 50,000 people, more than London and not much less than Paris. But in 1236, the city was sacked with such murderous savagery that only 2,000 of its people survived. The Rus could not stand against the Mongol invaders. The Mongol conquest turned the Kievan Rus princes into vassals of the Golden Horde and an estimated two-thirds of the towns of the Kievan Rus were obliterated. “Their populations disappeared, killed or taken off as slaves, or fleeing to the forests where the Mongols did not go.”
A shared faith
What especially defines both the Russians and the Ukrainians is precisely their shared Orthodox faith. Kiev was destroyed and it would be Moscow that gradually became the major city of all the Rus. In 1325, the Metropolitan (archbishop) of “Kiev and All Rus”, Pyotr II, moved his seat from Kiev to Moscow, making it the new spiritual capital of all the Rus. Moscow’s standing with the Church was boosted by its military defeat of a large Tartar army in 1380 at the battle of Kulikovo, near the River Don. The victory in Kulikovo is still celebrated in Russia, and Putin has frequently referred to it as evidence that his country was already a great power – “the saviour of Europe from the Mongol threat – in the fourteenth century.”
On 16 January 1547, the grand prince of Moscow, Ivan IV, was crowned as the new “Roman emperor” by Macarius, the Head of the Orthodox Church. Crowning the grand prince of Moscow as a tsar was a gesture to promote Moscow as the last “true seat” of the Christian faith, a city to replace Byzantium following the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks. Ivan IV then became the first “tsar”, a word that comes from the Roman imperial title Caesar, which is based on a claim put forth that Moscow had become the “third Rome” in succession to Constantinople and Rome itself. After being anointed the new tsar with sacred oil, Macarius placed a sceptre in his hand and crowned him, giving also a powerful sermon on his sacred duties to protect Christianity by ‘ruling with the fear of God’. By means of this magnificent Orthodox ceremony, tsar Ivan and those who followed him could claim the right to rule the former lands of Kievan Rus that were under the spiritual authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople – including the territories of today’s Ukraine and Belarus.
How does this period of Kievan Rus history connect with the rest of Russian history? And is there any meaningful sense in which modern Russia can lay claim to it as the foundation of its nationhood? As Putin pointed out in his interview, Russians and the Ukrainians originally were the same people. The heart of the Rus homeland was actually in Ukraine, which then became a part of “Greater Russia” and had no statehood of its own. Indeed, as Figes also points out, “Ukraine would not appear in written sources until the end of the twelfth century – and then only in the sense of okraina, an old Slav word for ‘periphery’ or ‘borderland’.” Of course, Putin tried to explain this in the first half of his interview with Carlson. But, once again, Professor Figes provides a proper answer:
“The lasting legacy of Kievan Rus was in religion and the cultural sphere, where Byzantium would permanently mark Russian civilisation. We should look at Kievan Rus as part of Russian ancient history – a period related to its later history in the same sense as Anglo Saxon Wessex is part of English history or Merovingian Gaul is linked to modern France – namely as a source of the country’s religion, its language and its artistic forms”.
Should Ukraine join NATO?
Henry Kissinger, who knew history and served as US Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, acknowledged these historical roots and believed that Ukraine should never be allowed to join NATO. According to Kissinger,
“The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began with Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries. The Russian Black Sea Fleet – Russia’s means of projecting power in the Mediterranean – is based in Sevastopol, Crimea (with Ukraine’s longtime agreement)”.
However, in December 2013, Senator John McCain, then a leading Republican voice on US foreign policy, told leaders of the then Ukrainian opposition camped on Kiev’s main square that “Ukraine's destiny lays in Europe”. When asked by CNN host Candy Crowley, on December 15, 2013, whether it was really a good idea to “take Russia on”, McCain candidly replied:
“There's no doubt that Ukraine is of vital importance to Putin. I think it was Kissinger, I'm not sure, who said that Russia, without Ukraine it is an eastern power. This is the beginning of Russia, right here in Kiev. So Putin views it as most highly important and he has put pressure on Ukrainians … The word is very clear and he has made certain threats. Whether he would carry them through I don't know.”
The rationale for the creation by the US of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was that it would be a defensive alliance necessary to stop the former Soviet Union from invading Western Europe. However, when the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s, if its claims were entirely truthful, then this organisation would have been dismantled, its purported purpose now moot.
Instead, since the mid-1990s successive US administrations have regularly pushed for NATO expansion in Eastern Europe. In 1999, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were granted NATO membership. Five years later, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia also joined the Alliance. Then, in an April 2008 summit in Bucharest, NATO considered admitting Georgia and Ukraine, which the Russians maintained would represent a “direct threat” to their national security.
The Russians saw this as a betrayal of a promise made by the US government on the collapse of the Berlin Wall that NATO would never advance “even one inch to the east”. And yet, the US government has over the years created justification for wars when the international law does not authorise them, as with the bombing of Serbia, Russia’s closest Balkan ally, in 1999. In February 1999, NATO issued an ultimatum to Belgrade, demanding total autonomy for Kosovo and the right for its troops to occupy the entire territory of former Yugoslavia. It was an absurd demand that was intended to force the Serbs to reject it, as they did on 23 March 1999, and three days later NATO bombing began. To justify that bombing, Western leaders then claimed that a “racial genocide” was happening in Kosovo. That claim was false because “the total death toll turned out to be about 500, not including the several hundred Serbian and Albanian civilians whom NATO had killed with its bombs”.
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The attack on Serbia
The post-war international system created after World War II was based on the “Nuremberg principles” of peaceful resolution of conflicts and equality of sovereign states. However, the invasion of Serbia by the US and its allies was intended to overthrow these principles of international law. According to John Laughland, an English political theorist, “just as millions had died for Bolshevism, many tens of thousands of lives were sacrificed to the West’s determination to see the post-modern and post-national constructivist project of Bosnian state-building succeed.” Opposed to the project of creating an independent Bosnia, “the Serbs represented an apparently reactionary and atavistic national force, and existential threat to the new European ideology”.
Perceiving a natural parallel between the situation in Ukraine and NATO’s intervention in Serbia, in 1999, at the end of February 2014, Russian military forces occupied the Crimea after the pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych, was unconstitutionally removed from office in February 2014 in an US-backed coup d’état. The next day, Putin complained about the illegal overthrow of a democratically elected leader. He rightly questioned the constitutionality of the process at his press conference on March 4, 2014:
“There are three ways of removing a President under Ukrainian law [there are four ways mentioned in Article 108 of the Ukrainian constitution]: one is his death, the other is when he personally steps down, and the third is impeachment. The latter is a well-deliberated constitutional norm. It has to involve the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court and the Rada [the unicameral parliament of Ukraine]. This is a complicated and lengthy procedure. It was not carried out. Therefore, from a legal perspective this is an undisputed fact”.
Russia’s occupation of Crimea
Arguably, the consequences of that US-backed coup in 2014 should be blamed, at least in part, for Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine. After the occupation of Crimea with the support of its population, NATO gave more than US$3 billion in military aid to the present Ukrainian regime, helping it to modernise its weaponry and train its troops in joint military exercises. When the US-backed coup succeeded in expelling Ukraine’s elected president, the Russians almost immediately retaliated by annexing the Crimea, in March 2014, but only after a popular referendum that was not recognized by the US and its Western allies. Crimeans, who mostly speak Russian, voted overwhelmingly to join the Russian Federation in a referendum in which 97 per cent of the people voted for reunion with Russia. Writing for the American Conservative, foreign policy expert Dominick Sansone comments:
“The move into Crimea came as a response, to secure Russia’s key naval interests in the warm-water port at Sevastopol. The coinciding uprisings in the Donbas were additionally a response to the situation in Kiev … The official position of the Kremlin has subsequently been that these ethnically Russian citizens should not be forced to live under the rule of an illegitimate rebel group that illegally came to power by overthrowing the duly elected government”.
There are some parallels between the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and what happened in Serbia in the late 1990s. This present crisis in Ukraine is primarily the result of an attempt by the US government to pull another Eastern European country decisively into its orbit and defence structure, via NATO membership/partnership. Indeed, NATO reports to provide “unprecedented levels” of military support to the Zelensky regime in Ukraine, “sending weapons, ammunition and many types of light and heavy military equipment, including anti-tank and anti-air systems, howitzers and drones. To date, NATO member countries have provided billions of Euros’ worth of military equipment to Ukraine”.
Do Putin’s historical claims make sense?
As can be seen from the interview with Carlson, although Putin holds strong nationalist feelings, at first, he explained, he was quite willing to be a partner with “the West”. As mentioned earlier, Putin assumed that so long as his nation backed the US-led “Global War on Terror’, then Russia would be respected by Western governments and its borders not threatened. Soon, however, the Russian leader started to realise that, instead of trying to bring Russia into new economic and military alliances, “the US and its North Atlantic allies acted as if the Cold War had been ‘won’ by them, and that Russia, the ‘defeated’ power, need not be consulted on the consequences of the Soviet collapse in regions where the Russians had historic interests”.
Clearly, the Russian leader has reached the limits of their willingness to tolerate NATO’s expansions and military actions, and he may actually have a very good historical reason for that. Whatever of one might think about Putin, “he deserves full credit for stabilising the country at home and restoring its role on the world stage”, writes Mark Galeotti. By the same token, Professor Galeotti continues: “Putin has come to see the greater threat coming from domestic weakness – possibly supported by hostile foreign powers – and thus … his regime is essentially conservative”.
To conclude, it is quite clear after this interview that Putin sincerely believes that Russia is engaged in a “just war” not so much against the Zelensky regime in Ukraine but, instead, for the end of Washington’s hegemony and the West’s “post-modernist morality”. In sum, Putin’s convictions and patriotic beliefs are why he rejects the woke West and does not want those beliefs in Russia. Above all, this interview with Tucker Carlson reveals important characteristics of his intriguing personality and worldview. We should all be very grateful to Carlson for this meaningful interview with Vladimir Putin.
Augusto Zimmermann is Professor and Head of Law at Sheridan Institute of Higher Education. He is also a former Associate Law Dean (Research) at Murdoch University, a former Commissioner with the Law Reform Commission of Western Australia. Professor Zimmermann is the author/co-author of numerous books, including the co-author of ‘Merchants of Death: Global Oligarchs War on Humanity’ (USA Press, 2023).
Image: screenshot YouTube
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