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Paul Vallely: Dangerous myths from the President

16 February 2024

Putin’s appearance on TV exposed weaknesses in the West, says Paul Vallely


President Putin responds to a question from Tucker Carlson during an interview at the Kremlin, last week

President Putin responds to a question from Tucker Carlson during an interview at the Kremlin, last week

I WONDER what Vladimir Putin made of Donald Trump’s latest campaign-trail outburst. During a political rally on Saturday in South Carolina, the former President Trump said that he would not want to protect NATO members from a future attack by Russia if those countries were spending less than two per cent of their GDP on defence. Indeed, Mr Trump said that he would “encourage” the Russians “to do whatever the hell they want” with such “delinquent” NATO nations.

The Russian President’s warmongering has recently come under scrutiny by the forensic TV documentary-maker Norma Percy, whose programme Putin vs the West examined the two years of fighting in Ukraine (TV, 9 February). Her two programmes made for disturbing viewing. First, they unpacked the tardy initial response of the West to the conflict — when Europe and the United States were uncertain how far they could back Ukraine without provoking a wider conflict with Russia. Next, they chronicled the fragmenting of Western support for the beleaguered nation.

But it was President Putin’s interview with the far-Right American television pundit Tucker Carlson that exposed just how grave that fragmentation has become. The interview was an exercise in sycophancy in which Mr Carlson, a leading Trump acolyte, allowed the Russian leader free rein to peddle a mythological version of Russian history, in a bogus justification of sending an invading army into Ukraine.

We have heard much of President Putin’s nonsense before. He began by lecturing the credulous Mr Carlson on Russian history, going back to the ninth-century Kyivan Rus, a name coined by historians only in the 19th century, and from which Ukraine could as legitimately claim descent as Russia can — and a name that also muddles the ideas of state and nation.

Later in the rambling two-hour interview, finally reaching the 20th century, President Putin bizarrely suggested that Poland had forced Hitler to invade it in 1939 — don’t ask — just as NATO had provoked Russia now to invade Ukraine to “deNazify” the Westward-leaning nation.

As Mr Carlson played the part of what Lenin is supposed to have called a “useful idiot”, all this might have come across as merely risible — were these times not so dangerous. Ukraine’s counter-offensive against the Russian invaders has stalled. President Zelensky has just sacked his commander-in-chief and called for reset and renewal in the war effort. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s allies cannot agree on what military materiel to provide, and when.

Most precariously, President Biden’s proposal for a $95-billion defence package, which includes aid for Ukraine, faces an uncertain future. It has been denounced by Mr Trump, and now faces Republican opposition in both chambers of Congress. There are plenty in Washington eager to accept President Putin’s assurance to Mr Carlson that all the US has to do is to stop providing weapons to Kyiv and “everything will be finished in a few weeks.”

Indeed, it could be. In Moscow, a poster urging men to enlist to fight in Ukraine depicts a masked gun-wielding soldier. Behind him is portrayed the frail figure of Jesus. Beneath is a slogan that reads: “Christ triumphed over hell, and Russia will, too.” Perhaps this is the “hell” to which Mr Trump — as detached as he is from theological as geo-political reality — has referred.

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