Tucker Carlson returns: fact-checking his Ukraine episode
Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi everybody. Ian Bremmer here. A Quick Take for you in the middle of the week.
I wanted to respond to Tucker Carlson's first online episode of what presumably is his new show. A lot of folks were saying that there's no fact checking on it. There's no community notes, there's supposed to be community notes to assess these standards. Why isn't someone going to do that? I certainly have no intention of doing that on a regular basis for Tucker Carlson's show, but because he's talking primarily about Russia and Ukraine, a topic I do know a fair amount about, spent a lot of time on, I thought that this could be helpful and, hey, if you want to put some community notes on it and they allow you to do that, have a party.
So let me go through some of the quotes that Tucker Carlson made in the show and I'll just kind of give you sort of my assessment on what we think about it. It's primarily about the explosion of this dam in Russian occupied Ukraine and the humanitarian and strategic implications of that. So couple points here.
First, Tucker says that the dam was built by the Russian government, not true. It was built in the early '50s actually by the Soviet Union, which of course is not the same thing as the Russian government. That's be presumably likes thinking that the United States should give Boston and Philadelphia back to the British. The dam, Carlson says, is Russia's own infrastructure. Actually, it's Ukrainian infrastructure, not Russian. Since becoming independent back in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine has been the legal owner of the dam. Russia has zero claim to it other than through occupation by force. They do occupy this territory, they have annexed the territory illegally and almost no countries in the world have recognized the legality of that annexation, not even a country like China has done that. Considers it to be Ukrainian and that Ukraine has territorial integrity over it.
He says it's not a military tactic, but an act of terror. I agree it's an act of terror. Classifying the blowing up of the dam as an act of terror doesn't mean it was not all so a military tactic. Both the Russians and the Ukrainians have accused the other side of terrorism, but both also argue that the other side destroyed the dam as a way to gain military advantage. Now, there are various arguments as to why they have had military motives. The most plausible one is that the Russians saw the resulting flooding as a way to block any Ukrainian attacks across the river of Dnipro. And it just happened just as Ukraine has intensified its ground attacks as this counteroffensive begins, which has led to a lot of speculation that a long awaited Ukrainian counteroffensive is indeed beginning or imminent. And if it was an accident, which it may well have been, it is a remarkable coincidence that it coincided with Russian concerns about the launching of that counteroffensive.
Okay, Tucker says, blowing up the dam may be bad for Ukraine but it hurts Russia more. This is Tucker's central argument, so it deserves the most detailed focus. All of the damage from the dam's destruction has occurred within Ukraine and almost all of the people that are impacted are Ukrainians, are ethnic Ukrainians, and just because certain regions are presently occupied by Russia does not stop them from being part of Ukraine. The damage inflicted by the flooding occurred in both Russian and Ukrainian controlled parts of Ukraine. Ukraine's Prosecutor General said that about 25,000 needed to be evacuated from the Russian controlled areas, about 17,000 from the Ukrainian controlled areas. Initial outside estimates seem to think that that's pretty close to the balance we're talking about, but even in the Russian controlled areas, a majority of the local population are likely to be pro Ukrainian and pro Zelensky. In the Kherson region, where the dam is located, Zelensky got 83% of the vote back in the 2019 presidential election.
Now, it could be argued that as these areas are presently Russian-occupied, Ukraine has an incentive to inflict economic damage on them, but that's not a very good argument. Ukraine's military objective is to recapture these areas from Russia as soon as possible, and hence the counteroffensive. Now, that may or may not succeed, but it's a reasonable goal and the Ukrainians certainly believe it's achievable, in which case they're going to have to foot the bill for rebuilding them.
As far as Crimea is concerned, the economic damage inflicted on crime Crimea will be relatively minor compared to the damage inflicted on regions close to the dam, and that includes water accessibility where the water had been cut off to Crimea for a long time during the annexation/occupation by the Russians since 2014. And that's been certainly an economic crimp, but has not been a disaster for them or stopped their ability to continue to develop it.
That's just considering the economic impact of the dam's destruction. From a military point of view, Russia's likely to benefit a little bit more than Ukraine from the dam's destruction. The flooding of the Dnipro River in the Kherson region means it's now very difficult to attack across the river. And that benefits Russia more, since Ukraine in this region is presently on the offensive. You're shortening the frontline as a consequence, that benefits the defender more than the attacker Ukraine because it allows the defender to concentrate more forces to meet the offensive and reduces the attacker's options. Also, since the attacker has the initiative, they know where the attack is going to be. So a benefit from a long front, they benefit from having more uncertainty that forces the defender to guess and to spread out.
The military benefits from the dam's destruction are pretty questionable in the sense that that is not likely to be where the Ukrainians are going to focus most of their attacks. If you want to break the Russian land bridge from Russian to Crimea, you're likely to hit probably about 100 miles away from that. But to the extent that one side is seen as having a military benefit, it's more likely to be the Russians. For the Ukrainians to benefit militarily from the disruption of Russian defenses along the river they'd need have a large and secret amphibious force ready to pounce across the river and the flooded areas we'll see over the next few weeks, but that looks very improbable at this point.
Tucker Carlson also says, nothing dark here, just too middle-aged people celebrating the killing of a population. He's talking about Lindsey Graham and President Zelensky, and they're clearly talking about the deaths of Russian soldiers who were dying in battle as a result of being sent by Putin to conquer Ukraine. I did not enjoy hearing the way they talked about that, but they're not talking about the killing of the Russian population. Hardly any Russian civilians have died as a result of Ukrainian actions during the war. That's in contrast to Ukrainian civilians killed by the Russians, an estimated 40,000 Ukrainian civilians have died in the war so far. Tens of thousands of civilians are believed to have died during the Siege of Mariupol alone. The AP reported back in December that the actual death toll there could be three times greater than an early estimate of 25,000. The irony here is that Russia claims Mariupol as part of Russia, and therefore it regards the people that it killed, civilians, as Russians.
It's not like Vladimir Putin is anxious to wage war on him himself, another Tucker Carlson quote, people who think that Russia did it, think Putin is the kind of man who'd shoot himself to death in order to annoy you. Russia is not the injured party here. The vast majority of the cost of this incident will be incurred by Ukrainians, and even if you granted that this is somehow more damaging to Russia than Ukraine, that doesn't remotely mean that Putin couldn't be behind it. After all, this whole war has been a massive exercise in Russia shooting its own foot. Putin also has a long track record of disregard for Russian lives. The 1999 apartment bombings, the MH-17 downing, the indiscriminate killing of ethnic Russians in Bakhmut, all of these sorts of things. That I think is critical context that of course we don't see from Tucker.
He says, people who blame Putin do so because they think that Putin is evil and evil people do evil things purely for the dark joy of being evil. In the specific case, Putin attacked himself, which is the most evil thing you can do, and therefore perfectly in character for a man that evil. This is a straw man, and serious analysts should not believe that Putin is primarily motivated by evil. Right or wrong, there are rational explanations for why Putin might have done this. He got away with annexation of Ukraine in 2014, very limited consequences, especially after the US disaster in Afghanistan. There were reasons to believe if you were Putin that you could do this and you'd succeed and get away with it. Certainly, he believed it was going to be a very short war. That's what he told his buddy Xi Jinping, and that they would be occupying Kyiv and the Zelensky government would be removed. That's not the way it turned out. But again, his mindset is not one that is being seen as motivated primarily by evil. It's a mindset of realpolitik of how he can win against the West that has been trying to repress and keep him down. I don't happen to agree with it, but it's very different from saying that Putin is the devil incarnate.
No one in the media pundit class seemed to entertain the possibility that Ukraine did it, they believe no chance of that because Zelensky is too decent for terrorism, literally a living saint. It's another straw man. Plenty of analysts and journalists, myself included, have explicitly considered that possibility and disgusted it online and through essays. Same thing with Nord Stream, by the way, where I made very clear consistently that it was unlikely that the Russians were behind the bombing of Nord Stream. Serious people do not think that Zelensky is a saint, and we didn't get censored, I didn't get censored for putting out that I thought Zelensky was behind the Nord Stream bombing. In fact, not only did I put it out online but I repeatedly discussed it on national television, on cable news, on CNN and MSNBC and Fox. No problem.
Then he says, Ukraine's shifty and dead eyed Jewish president is rat like and an oligarch, a persecutor of Christians and a friend of BlackRock, a person who'd enjoy flooding villages or starting a famine. It's painful to even quote that, these are all anti-Semitic dog whistles with a sprinkling of blood liable, plain and simple. Tucker Carlson knows exactly the kind of filth that he's spreading here, has no place on the media, which is part of why I suspect Fox is glad to be rid of him and frankly has no space on Twitter either.
The case made by the establishment for Americans to support Ukraine's tautological, Tucker concludes, "it is vital that you support Ukraine because it is vital that Ukraine is supported by you." There are real policy discussions here, both good and bad, that have been articulated, including by me, as to why America should support Ukraine, as to why America should have supported Ukraine back in 2014. That doesn't mean there's no risk involved, doesn't mean there's no danger involved, and certainly the fact that the world's largest holder of nuclear weapons is now seen as a war criminal by the G-7 and the international criminal court means that we have a more dangerous world. But Putin is ultimately much more responsible for that, and we need to remember that too.
And the fact that the United States has inconsistently stood up for its principles of democracy and self-determination historically, and have sometimes even overtly breached them as they did in the war to remove Saddam Hussein from Iraq, does not mean that when the United States is standing up for the right things, for the values that the country was founded on, that it should somehow stop. And here I take very profound issue with Tucker Carlson and what he's trying to do with his show, at least with this first episode. Having said that, I take heart in the fact that the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans in the country don't agree with him, and I expect that will continue to be the case.
So, hope you found this worthwhile and I'll talk to you all soon.