In 1983, the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Air Lines passenger jet, killing everyone on board. Afterward, a band of American communists showed up at my college to hand out their newspaper. It displayed a photo of a top Soviet military commander showing off the country’s air defenses. The caption boasted: “Don’t mess with the Russians!”
That celebration of Soviet power and brutality exposed a moral rot on the far reaches of the American left. But today, you’re more likely to find this kind of rot on the American right. It’s in Donald Trump’s persistent glorification of Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, and other autocrats. And it’s a regular feature on Fox News, thanks to America’s proudest nihilist, Tucker Carlson.
Carlson has spouted Kremlin propaganda for years. But in the past two months, as Russia has massed troops near its border with Ukraine, he has redoubled his efforts, rationalizing Putin’s aggression and denouncing Western attempts to deter a Russian invasion. Carlson isn’t a Russian agent, nor is he a useful idiot. He’s a useful cynic: someone whose moral emptiness happens to serve the interests of a foreign power. If you read Russian government websites, you’ll find that he’s using the same talking points as Putin’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And sometimes, he generates anti-American material for Russian state TV.
Putin’s government, unlike the old Soviet Union, portrays Russia as a Christian nation. Last week, in a statement denouncing the American-backed global Summit for Democracy—which opened on Thursday—the Russian foreign ministry accused European leaders of “aggressive inculcation of ultra-liberal values and practices that are destroying the Christian foundations of European civilization.” That argument—repeated three times in the statement, in varying forms—was an appeal to Christians in the West, encouraging them to turn against their own governments and identify instead with Russia.
On Tuesday, Carlson delivered the same message to his audience in the United States. In a segment dedicated to opposing American involvement in Ukraine, he interviewed a guest, retired U.S. Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, who made the case that Putin’s government “rests on the foundation of Orthodox Christianity” and that “we should celebrate that, not try to destroy it.” To this, Carlson added: “Maybe that’s one of the reasons we are trying to destroy it.” Carlson’s meaning was unmistakable: The United States is opposing Russia because the Russian government is Christian, and the American government isn’t.
Putin’s regime has a record of exterminating dissidents, but Carlson says that’s not important. Carlson’s predecessor in the Fox prime-time lineup, Bill O’Reilly, famously called Putin a killer during a 2017 interview with Trump. In that interview, Trump defended Putin: “We got a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?” Three months after that exchange, Carlson took over O’Reilly’s time slot, and criticism of Putin in the 8 p.m. hour all but disappeared. On Tuesday, Carlson showed a video clip of President Joe Biden affirming that Putin is a killer.“These people are children,” Carlson sneered, referring to Biden and other Putin critics. “Every other head of state” has been a killer, too, he suggested. “Vladimir Putin’s soul? Who cares?”
As the Summit for Democracy gets underway, one of Russia’s principal aims is to discredit the idea that America is a democracy. In presenting this argument, the Russian foreign ministry uses the lies and talking points that Trump and Carlson have spread. “Millions of Americans question the fairness and transparency of the 2020 [U.S.] presidential election,” the ministry noted in its statement last week, citing “dubious practices” such as “multi-week mail voting” and “the continuing reprisals of US authorities against protesters outside the Capitol on January 6.”
Carlson peddles the same paranoia about the election and Jan. 6. In fact, he has approvingly quoted Putin on these subjects. But on Tuesday, he went further, deploying the same anti-American argument—that we’re insincere about democracy—specifically to undercut Ukraine. The U.S. government’s attempt to deter Russian aggression against Ukraine “is not about democracy,” he scoffed. He dismissed this American meddling as an extension of the “Russia hoax,” a mindless conviction that “everything about Vladimir Putin is bad.” Behind it all, he told viewers, was a corrupt lobbying campaign: “Ukrainian interests have pumped millions of lobbying dollars into Washington, D.C.” to “tell us that Russia is bad.”
In her weekly briefings, Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry’s spokeswoman, insists that NATO and the United States are the real aggressors in Ukraine. She accuses them of “moving closer to the borders of our country” and “seeking to destabilize the situation on Russia’s borders.” Carlson agrees. Putin “just wants to keep his western border secure,” he declared on Tuesday, brushing off Russia’s previous invasion of Ukraine—its 2014 seizure and annexation of Crimea—and its current assembly of forces near the border. He denounced NATO as obsolete and cruel, claiming that it “exists primarily to torment Vladimir Putin.” And he rebuked Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, who had urged Biden to deter a Russian invasion of Ukraine, as a “bloodthirsty warmonger.”
Carlson seems particularly interested in Sevastopol, a port city on the Black Sea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in the Crimean invasion. Russia used to lease a naval base there, but in 2014, Putin eliminated that expense by stealing the whole peninsula. A month ago, Carlson said we shouldn’t care about that invasion, because when it took place, “I didn’t notice a detectable decline in American living standards.” But on Tuesday, he suddenly expressed interest in protecting the city. NATO should stay out of Ukraine, he cautioned, because its involvement there “would compromise Russia’s access to its Sevastopol Naval Base,” and Putin “cannot let [that] happen.” Actually, Sevastopol is far from the area where NATO aid would be applied. But to Carlson, that doesn’t matter. In his view, Ukraine’s loss of Sevastopol was fine, but anything that triggers Putin’s anxiety about Russia possibly losing Sevastopol would be unacceptable.
Carlson doesn’t just parrot Russia’s moral arguments and fuss over its territorial concerns. He also reinforces Russia’s strategic message: that instead of trying to deter Putin, America should be deterred by Putin. In a briefing two weeks ago, Zakharova noted ominously that Russia’s gas pipeline to Germany, Nord Stream 2, “is vital for stable energy supplies to Europe and for the competitiveness of Germany and the EU.” Carlson agrees that Russia’s energy supplies give it geopolitical power—and from this he concludes that the United States should capitulate. “Why would we take Ukraine’s side and not Russia’s side?” he asks. “I mean, who’s got the energy reserves?”
Russia’s foreign ministry also dangles the prospect that it could turn to China as an alternative partner if the United States makes trouble in Ukraine or elsewhere. Last month, Zakharova boasted that Russia has “close and trustful contacts,” “close neighborly relations,” and “all-round partnership and strategic interaction” with China, unlike Russia’s cool relations with the United States. Carlson makes the same point. By challenging Putin in Ukraine, he warns, “we’d be driving Russia—and we are, in fact—deeper into the arms of the government of China.”
NATO and the United States are trying to avert a war in Ukraine by persuading Putin that he can’t win, because through sanctions on Russia and military assistance to Ukraine, the West would make a Russian invasion too painful for the Kremlin. Carlson is doing the opposite: He’s trying to persuade Americans that we can’t win, because Putin would make Western resistance too painful for us. “There is nothing we could possibly gain from a military confrontation with Vladimir Putin, and there is very much we could lose—including, of course, many thousands of American lives,” Carlson warned his viewers on Tuesday. His guest, Macgregor, reasoned that the United States should cut a deal with Russia—acceding to Putin’s threats—because if we were to “challenge Russia” in Ukraine, “we will be defeated.”
Carlson also echoes the Russian foreign ministry in other ways. The ministry says “the Anglo-Saxon military lobby” is fabricating the “Russian threat” to extract more defense spending; Carlson, in his rant against helping Ukraine, blames the “guys from Raytheon.” The ministry mocks the United States for complaining about other countries’ borders while failing to manage its own border crisis; Carlson raises the same point. Why does Ukraine have “a God-given right to territorial integrity,” he asks, when we have “Hondurans invading Texas”? On Russian state TV, video clips of Carlson and his diatribes are a constant presence.
Why does Carlson use his platform to serve Russia? I doubt he sees it that way. He doesn’t think he’s being owned by Putin. He thinks he’s owning the libs. But when you dedicate your show to owning the libs, and when the liberals you hate are people who believe in human rights around the world, you can end up as the American spokesman for thugs like Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who despise liberal democracy, immigration, and—as Carlson recently put it, in praise of Russia—“woke” American culture. And that’s why Carlson mocks the idea of looking for Putin’s soul. He’s not looking for men who have souls. He’s looking for men who don’t.