As Russia’s war on Ukraine nears its second year, no American commentator has been more well-received by the war-making Russian state than Tucker Carlson. His commentaries on Ukraine, Russia, the “feebleness” of Joe Biden, and even gender politics are widely rebroadcast and discussed by Russian media, most of which are state-owned and all of which are state-controlled. Carlson even has his own Russian-dubbed YouTube channel, Taker Karlson na russkom (“Tucker Carlson in Russian”), which has nearly one million subscribers and is linked to a television station in the Khanty-Mansi region of Western Siberia. Coincidentally, the channel was launched on Feb. 26, two days after Russia launched an all-out war on Ukraine.
It’s no small wonder that Russia’s establishment loves Tucker, who argues that Putin’s Russia is neither an enemy nor threat to the United States and consistently echoes Kremlin propaganda in spreading half-truths, misinformation, and outright lies that depict Ukraine as a hopelessly corrupt tyranny. On Jan. 11, Carlson made the completely unsubstantiated claim that tens of billions in U.S. aid that Ukraine has received have gone to “Zelensky and his wife.”
Carlson’s influential anti-Ukrainian stance and his occasional pro-Russian cheerleading are hard to explain. It is one thing to (wrongly) argue that the U.S. has little strategic interest in Russia’s bloody effort to forcibly restore the USSR; it is quite another to buttress your case by falsely claiming that Ukraine is a tyranny ruled by a corrupt elite and so is presumably unworthy of our support.
Giving aid and comfort to Russian propagandists is not unimportant. But Carlson’s impact in the U.S. is far more significant. On Jan. 23, he excoriated Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Sen. Lindsey Graham for their consistent support of Ukraine. On Jan. 27, the target was Mike Pompeo. These were only the latest in a stream of attacks on conservatives who, like Carlson’s Fox colleague Sean Hannity, support Kyiv against Putin’s aggression. Carlson’s barrage of criticism has had a profound effect. One news report quotes an unnamed GOP lawmaker as saying “that Republicans against aid to Ukraine are experiencing the ‘Tucker Carlson’ effect.'” According to the lawmaker, who is fearful of engaging the host given his wide influence and loyal audience, Carlson “is listening to Russia disinformation. And he’s creating problems for us in our districts.”
That’s why it’s important to take a look at Carlson’s assertions, which he explained in the greatest detail in a Fox News opinion post on Dec. 7 entitled “This is the reality about Ukraine’s Zelenskyy.” Left unchallenged, these assertions will continue to erode support for the embattled country among Republican legislators and voters.
According to Carlson: “[Volodymyr] Zelenskyy has no interest in freedom and democracy. In fact, Zelenskyy is far closer to Lenin than to George Washington. He is a dictator. He is a dangerous authoritarian who has used a hundred billion in U.S. tax dollars to erect a one-party police state in Ukraine. And that’s not an overstatement.”
Carlson is wrong. Ukraine is led by a democratically elected and democratically accountable leader who knows his nation’s commitment to freedom and democracy is as strong as its fighting spirit. While Russia has been under Putin’s rule for 25 of its 31 years (20 of them as president), Ukraine has elected six presidents and seen five rotations of power. While Putin’s United Russia party has held the majority for the last 20 years, only twice in its history has Ukraine seen a parliamentary majority controlled by a single party.
Zelensky cannot be a tyrant because of one fact Carlson conveniently ignores: Ukraine’s people are freedom-loving, as they have proved at several intervals in their modern history. In 1989–91, Ukrainians marched and protested by the hundreds of thousands, helping bring down the Soviet empire. In 2004, massive crowds braved Kyiv’s winter weather to reverse a fraudulent election. In 2014, Ukrainians stood their ground to ensure that the country would not fall under Russian domination even as nearly a hundred of their brethren were mowed down by government snipers. And in 2022, Ukrainians mobilized by the millions as civic volunteers, volunteer fighters, and a professional military and courageously beat back what was regarded as one of the world’s most powerful militaries.
To be sure, Zelensky enjoys more power than past Ukrainian presidents. This is not because he is a tyrant, but because his personal popularity and democratic mandate yielded a powerful majority in parliament. Such power is common in many democracies. In the 1930s, FDR and the Democrats controlled some 70 percent of the U.S. Senate and three out of four seats in the House. Lyndon B. Johnson enjoyed nearly a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate after the 1964 election. And in Britain, Margaret Thatcher commanded an overwhelming majority that enabled her to achieve her ambitious free-market agenda. These are not signs of tyranny, but rather affirmations of the public will.
Not only is Zelensky not a tyrant, but he is untainted by personal corruption. As the target of dozens of assassination plots, for the last year Zelensky has been living an ascetic life, working 18- and 20-hour days and sleeping in a grim, nuclear-bomb-proof Soviet-era government bunker separately from his wife and children. Unlike several of his predecessors, he came into office as a self-made multi-millionaire. He earned his money through his numerous comic TV and film productions. There is no evidence that he has enriched himself at the public trough. Since the war began, he also has been proactive in eradicating corruption in government circles. Recent weeks have seen a wide array of dismissals, including several deputy ministers and Zelensky-appointed governors. Most of these came amid press reports that suggested their involvement in corrupt schemes. Zelensky didn’t wait for criminal indictments or court verdicts. He dismissed key appointees simply when there was the appearance of corruption or lavish living at a time of war. As importantly, since 2014, Ukraine has seen a massive decline in corruption as a result of government reforms and the establishment of independent investigative and prosecutorial bodies, with leadership vetted by juries that included U.S. and European experts. The emergence of a separate, similarly formed special anti-corruption court has also had a marked effect. Above all, corruption has been reduced by selling off government-owned companies through transparent, competitive privatization auctions, something a conservative like Carlson should applaud.
If Carlson wants to expose massive corruption at the top, he should show his viewers excerpts from imprisoned Alexei Navalny’s detailed documentaries on the vast estates and financial holdings of most of Russia’s top leaders, including Vladimir Putin.
But Navalny is in jail, while in a country under attack, Ukraine’s intrepid investigative journalists operate freely. And here we confront the second dissimulation in Carlson’s canon: the idea that the independent media and the political opposition in Ukraine are under attack.
Carlson: “Over the past two years, Zelenskyy has banned opposition parties. He’s shut down critical media by force. He’s arrested his political opponents.”
Three news channels and their affiliated websites have been shut down in Ukraine’s crowded media space. These sanctioned stations were financed by billionaire Viktor Medvedchuk, a longtime leader of Russia’s fifth column in Ukraine. Putin is godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter and, unsurprisingly, Medvedchuk and his TV host wife have won noncompetitive licenses to extract oil in Russia generating hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenues, which were then used to finance pro-Russian media and political activities in the buildup to Russian all-out war.
Despite these targeted bans, a wide array of independent and opposition news media function unimpeded on cable television and the internet. To be sure, most opposition channels and media have muted their sharp criticism of Zelensky, but this has been done voluntarily as an act of solidarity with the leader of their nation in a time of war. Investigative reporting remains vigorous, as does the open discussion of the actions of the government.
Political parties, too, were financed by Medvedchuk’s Russian cash pipeline. And they and individual legislators who have betrayed Ukraine and not fled for Russia have been arrested, sanctioned, or exchanged for prisoners of war. Members of the banned Opposition Platform — For Life who were not linked to Russian financing, or did not flee the country after the war began, remain in parliament and work as two reconstituted political groupings. The party of former President Petro Poroshenko — President Zelensky’s major rival — functions unimpeded as does the party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Both are part of a patriotic opposition that regularly criticizes many of Zelensky’s policies.
Carlson: “[Zelensky] has sent soldiers into churches. Zelenskyy’s secret police have raided monasteries across Ukraine, even a convent full of nuns, and arrested dozens of priests for no justifiable reason whatsoever and in clear violation of the Ukrainian constitution, which no longer matters.”
This emotive claim, resonant with conservatives, is Carlson’s greatest deception. No Ukrainian religious community or Church has been banned or persecuted for its religious practices. Not a single Ukrainian church has been shut down.
When Ukraine broke free of the USSR in 1991, its Orthodox Church split into two communities. One, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, became fully independent. The other, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, remained under the aegis of Moscow’s patriarchate. For three decades — including the eight years after Russia annexed Crimea and occupied parts of Eastern Ukraine — this Russia-linked church operated freely. Only in 2022, with the launch of Russia’s all-out invasion, did the government insist the church sever its ties with Kirill, the Moscow patriarch, who is reputed to be a longtime operative in Russia’s security services. Kirill enthusiastically supports Russia’s aggression and occupation of Ukraine and participates with Putin in colloquia with the commanders of Russia’s armed forces, who today are butchering Ukrainian civilians by the thousands.
In short, Ukraine’s actions target specific clerics and hierarchs and are focused exclusively on those who are disseminating Kremlin propaganda. These sweeps have uncovered troves of Russian propaganda materials, large sums of cash, and evidence of the Russian citizenship of a number of key leaders of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
A recent poll showed that 78 percent of Ukrainians support Zelensky’s actions against the Moscow-affiliated church. Only 4 percent of Orthodox Ukrainians support continued affiliation with the now fully discredited Moscow Patriarchate.
Tucker Carlson’s consistent propaganda against Ukraine and his generally neutral and occasionally favorable view of Russia and Putin are surprising given the conservative values he professes. Ukraine, by contrast with Russia, is the more conservative country. Church attendance there is higher than in Russia; abortion rates are lower; evangelical religious groups operate without restrictions; and the space for free expression and libertarian live-and-let-live values predominates.
Carlson’s anti-Ukrainian stance is equally surprising given his pedigree as the son of a renowned Cold Warrior and American Spectator contributor — Richard Carlson, who served as Ronald Reagan’s head of Voice of America and supported a wide array of broadcasts targeted at Ukrainians and the other non-Russian nationalities, whose political ferment brought down the USSR.
Today, the Cold Warrior’s son is diligently working to undo Ronald Reagan’s — and his father’s — greatest geopolitical achievement: the dismantling of the Evil Empire. Were Putin to defeat Ukraine and reabsorb its population of 40 million into the Russian empire, he would gain impetus for further Russian expansion and the strengthening of aggressive Russian power. That is precisely what Tucker Carlson is helping to bring about and that is why his consistent distortions about Ukraine and as well as his evasions about the Russian threat must be met head-on.
Adrian Karatnycky, formerly the president of Freedom House and a frequent contributor to The American Spectator in the late Cold War and post-Cold War era, is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He is completing a history entitled Battleground Ukraine: From Independence to the Russian War.