I wonder if there is a central clearing office that issues regular updates about what nasty dictators one is allowed to engage with and which ones, for this week anyway, one must avoid.
It was okay for Gavin Newsom to remove the feces and the homeless from the streets of San Francisco in order to fête Xi Jinping. Likewise, it was just fine for CNN and the BBC to interview the leader of Hamas. And of course CNN’s Erin Burnett was on the case with Volodymyr Zelensky in her 2023 interview with the former comedian and crossdressing performance artist (though the soundtrack to this version of Burnett’s love fest is—special).
It was okay to interview or publish Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, and Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy leader of the Taliban. It was even okay, once upon a time, for journalists—well, some journalists—to interview Vladimir Putin.
But just let Tucker Carlson travel to Moscow to interview the Russian dictator, and pow!, the media and its minders go nuts. Did you know that Tucker Carlson is a “right-wing conspiracy, theorist” a faux-journalist, and (according to Hillary Clinton) “a useful idiot.” Really, the clip is just as amusing as those compilations of important people explaining why Donald Trump could not win in 2016 (“Take it to the bank,” said Nancy Pelosi). I watched the entire 2-hour-long interview and the 2-part, 10-minute post-mortem Tucker conducted in an ante-room of the Kremlin and then back at his hotel. I thought both were fascinating.
That does not, by the way—do I really have to say this?—that does not mean that I am “soft on Putin.” Having published books highly critical of him at Encounter Books—including a scathing anatomy of the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko by plutonium—I am under no illusions about Putin’s brutality.
That said, I believe Donald Trump was right when he said, “It would be a good thing, not a bad thing,” if the United States were to get along with Russia. I have explained why I think so several times, for example, here.
Ever since Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022, hysteria has ruled. I’ve written about that too, for example, here.
A leitmotif in Putin’s remarks to Tucker in that marathon interview was, as he saw it, the serial betrayal of Russia by the West. There was a moment, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when it seemed as though Russia would be welcomed into the family of the West. You’ll find the word “thaw” featured prominently in lots of stories from the period. And later: Remember Hillary Clinton presenting Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with her famous “reset button” in 2009? But that was then. In 2014, Russia reabsorbed Crimea (which in truth never left the Russian sphere of influence), and then, in 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, and the reset was definitively reset.
Data point: NATO was formed after World War II to counter Soviet aggression towards the West. Many commentators, including Irving Kristol, wondered why, with the demise of the Soviet Union, NATO continued to exist. I think that is a good question. But it has continued to exist and, in fact, has greatly expanded. NATO originally had 12 members: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In 1990, Western leaders gave assurances to Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand further east. After all, it was supposed to be the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, right? But today, NATO has 31 member states, including several that border Russia. The prospect of Ukraine’s joining NATO is intolerable and is one thing that sparked the current conflagration in Ukraine. Look at a map, and you will understand why.
The world seems to be divided in two. There are some who believe that Putin is a dangerous, Hitler-like dictator bent on reassembling the Soviet Union, if not, indeed, conquering all of Europe. In the course of his interview with Tucker, Putin several times insisted that he had no revanchist goals and, in response to a direct question from Tucker, said that he was open to a negotiated peace in Ukraine.
The people who most fear Putin scoff at such protestations. “Hitler kept saying he just wanted another piece of Europe, too, you know!” My own suspicion is that, on this question anyway, Putin is telling the truth. Russia is already, by a considerable margin, the biggest country on earth, with a dizzying variety of ethnicities. They do not need Lebensraum. Moreover, Putin is presiding over a country beset by economic and demographic problems. Alcoholism is rampant. Life expectancy is among the lowest in the developed world.
As for Ukraine, I think Henry Kissinger was right when, back in 2014, after Putin officially retook Crimea, he rejected the simplistic morality play according to which Ukraine was on the side of the angels and Russia the side of the devil. Not everyone who is a paid-up member of the Zelensky fan club seems to be aware that he has suspended elections, exerted monopoly state control over the media, and ruthlessly suppressed dissent through the iron hand of neo-Nazi paramilitary units like the Azov Battalion. “Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus,” Kissinger wrote. “Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then.” Putin made the same point to Tucker Carlson.
Whatever else can be said about the conflict in Ukraine, I believe that Kissinger was correct when he observed that “the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.” “Far too often,” he continued, “the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West. But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other—it should function as a bridge between them.” Does that mean that I am somehow “pro-Putin?” No, it doesn’t. But to appreciate that, you would need to appreciate that the Manichean temptation should be resisted in world affairs as well as in matters of theology.