Mikhail Khodorkovsky: Putin needs Tucker Carlson because ordinary Russians love the West

February 9, 2024

Russian president needs validation he thinks interview with US journalist gives him for one reason – to keep him in power

 Among world leaders, Vladimir Putin is possibly the easiest to analyse. The one thing you need to keep in mind is: every single thing that Putin does, he does it for staying in power.

Cracking down on the opposition, eliminating dissent, stifling the free press and keepingbusinesses in check – all of this is pursuit of the sole goal: to stay in power. Even the invasion of Ukraine, which many tend to see from an imperialist or colonial angle, is rooted in domestic, not foreign policy, objectives.

In this war, Putin is exploiting Russians’ national trauma, resentment and nostalgia for a great Russia to boost his popularity and cement the legitimacy of his rule.

Putin’s propaganda machine is portraying Ukraine as a proxy of the West, Russia’s sworn, formidable enemy. It is the West and Nato that Putin is fighting in Ukraine, and this is how most Russians have been shaped to view this war.

But if you believe that the West is Russia’s existential enemy, then where does the Tucker Carlson phenomenon fit in? How come Carlson has become a darling of Russian state media and what does it do to help Putin tighten his grip on power?

Carlson’s every step on Russian soil has garnered more media coverage than any recent visit of any world leader or a pop star: Carlson is here, Carlson is there. It’s a weird spectacle. But it’s easy to explain.

The Kremlin and its propaganda machine may be waging wars with the “collective West”as they call it but the Russian leadership is still dependent on public opinion in the West. Putin has been desperately seeking recognition in the West throughout his political career, and he built his legitimacy inside Russia on this recognition.

Russians undoubtedly have largely Western tastes, behaviour and consumption patterns. Russians watch Hollywood movies and love German-made cars, Italian clothes and Finnish groceries. Any Russian could easily name a Western athlete, film star or a writer – but would struggle to come up with a name for a Chinese or an Indian one.

To Russians, the West is both a bully and a role model. And Western recognition in Russia has way more traction than the domestic one, especially because Russians are well aware of how disingenuous the Russian propaganda is.

The invasion of Ukraine has pushed the West to turn its back on Russia. Putin is no longer invited to global summits. He no longer gets to host high-placed politicians in Moscow. Russian athletes have been barred from international competitions, and the Russian leadership has been slapped with international sanctions.

Putin has lost most of his fans among once Kremlin-friendly Western politicians, business leaders and journalists.

The Kremlin is hurting so much from the stonewalling by the West that it is desperate enough to resort to ridiculous means.

Russian propagandists have recently been posting plaudits for Putin in the comment sections of western media outlets under the guise of Europeans or Americans only for these comments to be shared in Russia and held up as the prevailing opinion in the West.

Putin and his regime badly lack the validation from the West needed to bolster his legitimacy at home.

Enter Tucker Carlson. In the opening days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Carlson spent quite a bit of time on his show defending Putin and accusing the US of provoking the war, making him an instant darling for Kremlin propagandists.

All Russian TV channels – most of which are, by the way, run by Putin’s alleged mistress Alina Kabaeva – received orders from the Kremlin administration: use Carlson’s soundbites as much as you can.

Kremlin’s most precious jewel

Carlson is the most precious jewel of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine. He parroted a Kremlin conspiracy theory about “biolabs” in Ukraine, condemned Zelensky for “willingness” to launch a nuclear strike on Russia and accused Joe Biden of trying to establish a “dictatorship” in the US like the one in Ukraine.

These allegations could definitely find a place in the speech of Russia’s president, but are not commonplace in the musings of a prominent American journalist.

At last, everything fell into place: Carlson is in Moscow to interview Putin. At this decisive moment, the self-proclaimed American patriot joined the camp of power-crazy former KGB officers and notorious Russian propagandists like Dmitry Kiselev, who famously threatened to turn the US into “radioactive ash”.

Carlson these days embodies Putin’s need for confirmation by the West, which he needs to sustain his legitimacy at home. But this need is also Putin’s Achilles’ heel which lays bare the vulnerabilities of the Russian dictator.

If Putin is that dependent on Western recognition and confirmation, then the West finally has a clear idea what to do.

Putin’s legitimacy at home must be undermined by refusing to recognise him as a legitimate president after the presidential elections in March.

What’s more, there is a solid legal ground to do so: as the vote for Putin is going to be held not only across Russia but also in the areas of Ukraine that Putin has unlawfully annexed.

The article was first published in The Telegraph