Russia fawns over Tucker Carlson

Ivan Makridin

 

While former U.S. President Donald Trump was giving Russia the green light to attack NATO countries, Russian state media were lapping up the attention of conservative pundit Tucker Carlson, who interviewed Russian President Vladimir Putin last week in Moscow. Every one of Carlson’s banal observations made during his visit were broadcast as evidence of Americans’ true feelings about Russia. And as Carlson waxed lyrical about metro stations in Moscow — “there’s no filth, there are no foul smells” — those feelings appeared to be a combination of awe and envy. “How does Russia,” asked Carlson on a video posted on X, “have a subway station that’s nicer than anything in our country?”

I don’t know if Carlson feels the same way about Russian hamburgers, but it was broadcast on prime time news that he visited a branch of “Vkusno i tochka” (translated as “Tasty, that’s it”), a local replacement for McDonald’s, which pulled out of Russia in May 2022. Apparently, he ordered two burgers. 

As a Russian journalist in exile, I maintain close contact with people back home. Most people I spoke to had no idea who Carlson was and found the state media’s celebration of an American journalist “weird.” There was even a dissenting voice within the state media. The journalist Andrey Medvedev posted sarcastically in Russian on his Telegram channel: “How wonderful, an American has come to visit us! How happy we are.” A pro-war account on Telegram compared the rapturous Carlson coverage to Soviets who cursed the West but loved blue jeans, rock ‘n’ roll and American movie stars. 

Largely, though, the tone of the coverage in state media of Carlson’s quasi-state visit was adoring, like a cargo cult, a Russian friend messaged me, with Carlson playing the charismatic visiting prophet. TASS, a Russian state-owned news agency, reported that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said after Carlson’s interview that “the world has changed.” He meant, despite criticism of the interview in the West, Putin’s message “cannot be blocked” from reaching the world.

Not that Carlson tried too hard to block anything. Even Putin appears to have expected more resistance from the American. Speaking to Pavel Zarubin, a pro-Kremlin journalist, Putin claimed to have prepared “for so-called sharp questions” because it would give him “the opportunity to respond in the same way.” But for all Putin’s talk of being prepared for tough, challenging questions, the Kremlin routinely refuses supposedly unfriendly media requests for interviews. No independent Russian outlet has had access to Putin for years. 

Still, did Putin score the propaganda win he wanted? By expressing disappointment in Carlson’s credulous questioning, he appears to have understood that he came across more dull than decisive. That said, over 200 million people have seen Carlson’s post of the interview on X (if not the two-hour-long video of the interview itself). And if it helps fuel the U.S. right wing’s unease with continuing to fund Ukraine’s resistance, the Kremlin will have achieved its aims.

GLOBAL NEWS

Unofficial early counts show that Indonesian voters, who went to polls on February 14, will overwhelmingly elect Prabowo Subianto as their new president. Subianto, currently the defense minister, has been accused of committing human rights abuses and war crimes while he was a special forces officer in the military. Married to the daughter of the late Indonesian strongman Suharto, who led Indonesia for over 30 years as a military dictator, Subianto has tried and failed before to be elected president. This time around, using TikTok, media and an artificial intelligence-generated cartoon image of himself, Subianto appealed to Indonesia’s vast youth vote by portraying himself as a cuddly granddad with awkward dance moves. It’s digital disinformation, but how do you fact-check likeability?

In Israel, denying or even “downplaying the dimensions” of the October 7 attacks will likely become a crime on par with Holocaust denial. Last week, the Israeli parliament took preliminary steps to pass a bill that would hand down five-year prison sentences to people who make statements that deny or express sympathy with the massacre, in which Hamas militants murdered an estimated 1,200 people (about 700 of whom were Israeli civilians). Sections of the Israeli press have reported that the “broad wording” of the proposed legislation is “raising red flags” over free speech and blurring the line between critical debate and criminality.

On Monday, barely two weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its third year, French authorities accused Russia of running “Portal Kombat,” a disinformation campaign that spread propaganda across Europe through at least 193 sites and was aimed at disrupting key events including the European Parliament elections in early June. French accusations emerged in the wake of controversy generated by former U.S. President Donald Trump, who publicly boasted that he would encourage Russia to attack NATO countries — allies of the U.S. — that he believed had failed to pay their share of the Western military alliance’s bills.

WHAT WE’RE READING

This week, India has once again demonstrated its current bull-in-a-china-shop approach to press freedom. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting demanded that the widely respected, award-winning magazine The Caravan take down reporter Jatinder Kaur Tur’s story about the Indian army torturing and murdering civilians in Jammu and Kashmir, where there has been separatist violence at varying levels of intensity for over 30 years. No reason has been offered. But the ministry’s order will no doubt draw far more attention to the story than it might ordinarily have received, and it has already prompted people to preserve it online for Indians to read despite the takedown order. The three murders that Tur describes are already subject to an inquiry by the army, so why the Indian government should suppress reporting on the incident baffles most people who retain faith in the idea of India as a democracy with a robust press.

The remainder of the newsletter was curated by Shougat Dasgupta.