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The Week In Russia: Horrible History, Revealing Remarks 

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during an interview with Tucker Carlson at the Kremlin on February 6.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during an interview with Tucker Carlson at the Kremlin on February 6.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead.

Familiar narratives and a severely skewed version of history were on display once again in President Vladimir Putin's interview with Tucker Carlson. There were also some moments that shed additional light on his motives in the invasion of Ukraine and other matters.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

'Largely Fictional'

For some, the biggest takeaway from Tucker Carlson's interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin could be summed up in a single word: Boring.

Partly because Putin started off with a long history lecture riddled with falsehoods and factual errors that did little, for many ears, to make it more interesting. It spawned multiple memes mocking what one commentator called a "largely fictional" account that stretched back to the 9th century. Ninth -- that's not a typo.

At one point, Carlson reassured Putin that his lengthy sojourn into the past was "not boring," but many who watched the interview -- or wrote about it -- disagreed.

Another potential source of tedium: Putin's re-reiteration of several of his well-worn narratives -- most of them, in this case, meant to justify Russia's aggression against Ukraine over the last decade, from the seizure of Crimea in 2014 to the full-scale invasion that will hit the two-year mark this month.

Carlson and the Kremlin posted the interview on the Internet on February 9. In addition to what Bloomberg Opinion columnist Marc Champion described as Putin's "usual string of half-truths and outright falsehoods about the war in Ukraine," it featured some of his familiar bugbears, from Lenin to NATO.

But while there was nothing much new -- as there often isn't in Putin's interviews, speeches, and other public statements -- there were some revealing remarks, comments that seemed to shed light on Putin's motives in the war against Ukraine and other matters.

Resentment And 'Obsession'

Despite Putin’s criticism of NATO and its enlargement, for example, his focus on the past added to the already voluminous evidence that he is obsessed with Ukraine and that, as Champion put it, he invaded the country "out of the apparently sincere belief that he's retaking lands that rightfully belong to Russia."

One could argue with the suggestion that Putin sincerely holds that belief, but it may not matter much -- in any case, the remarks seemed to throw the thinking behind the invasion into sharper relief. "Resentment over NATO's expansion played a part for sure, but it was a supporting role," Champion wrote.

Also of note: Resentment over the Western alliance taking in former Warsaw Pact states and ex-Soviet republics is not the same as a genuine belief that it poses a threat -- let alone an imminent threat -- to Russia's security.

'Hitler Had No Choice'

Another telling remark -- one that seems particularly striking in the context of the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine -- came in his comments on World War II, which began when Germany invaded Poland days after reaching an agreement with Moscow to carve up parts of Eastern Europe in a secret annex to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939.

By refusing to cede territory that Hitler wanted to Germany, Poland "forced Germany to begin the Second World War," Putin said, adding that Poland "turned out to be intractable. Hitler had no choice in implementing his plans other than to start precisely with Poland."

"The idea that the victim of the attack serves as its instigator by forcing the hand of the aggressor is central to all of Putin's explanations for Russia's war in Ukraine," Masha Gessen wrote in The New Yorker. "To my knowledge, though, this was the first time he described Hitler's aggression in the same terms."

Striking, particularly given the enormous focus Putin has placed on the Soviet role in World War II, and given the Russian state's refusal to countenance any comparison between Stalin's Soviet Union and Hitler's Germany.

Jailed Journalists

Another moment that seemed revealing came near the end of the two-hour interview, when Carlson asked about Evan Gershkovich -- who, along with Alsu Kurmasheva of RFE/RL, is one of two American journalists jailed in Russia last year and still being held on charges that they and their employers say are unfounded.

Asked whether he was prepared to free Gershkovich as a "goodwill gesture," Putin repeated the Russian claim that the U.S. journalist was "caught red-handed" in an act of espionage, without providing evidence, and said Russia was open to -- and involved in -- negotiations with an eye to a prisoner swap.

Nothing new there. But Putin also clearly identified one Russian held in the West as a desired candidate for an exchange -- a former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer who is in prison in Germany after being convicted of fatally shooting a Georgian former separatist fighter in Russia's North Caucasus in a park in Berlin in broad daylight in 2019.

And of Gershkovich, the only American journalist arrested on espionage charges in Russia since the Cold War and the Soviet collapse, Putin said that it "makes no sense, more or less, to hold him in prison in Russia."

The comments were seen as the clearest sign yet that Putin and his government view U.S. and other Western citizens held in Russia as bargaining chips for potential prisoner swaps.

"Russian President Vladimir Putin is using Gershkovich as a pawn, holding him hostage in order to gain leverage over -- and extract a ransom from -- the United States," The Wall Street Journal’s parent company said in September.

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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