Return to Transcripts main page


The Most Powerful Man in the World. Aired 11-midnight ET

Aired July 7, 2017 - 23:00   ET



ZAKARIA:Winston Churchill, famously said of Russia, "It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Prime Minister Churchill meets Vladimir Putin.

TRUMP:He is really very much of a leader. He's been a leader far more than our president has been a leader.

CLINTON:He was a KGB agent. By definition, he doesn't have a soul.

MCCAIN:Vladimir Putin is a thug and a murder and a killer.

(UNKNOWN):He's the richest man in the world; hundreds of billions of dollars of wealth.

ZAKARIA:What does he want from Donald Trump?

IOFFE:Putin is going to eat him like a sandwich.

CLINTON:He'd rather have a puppet as president.

TRUMP:You're the puppet.

ZAKARIA:Just how powerful is he?

(UNKNOWN):Putin has an untrammeled authority.

(UNKNOWN):I don't see any checks on his power.

ZAKARIA:So powerful he rigged the American election?

(UNKNOWN):Of course, Putin wanted Hillary Clinton to lose.

(UNKNOWN):He despised Hillary Clinton.

(UNKNOWN):Whom would you like better?

ZAKARIA:While Russia celebrates, Americans asks, what does he want? And is he really the most powerful man in the world?

December 5, 1989, it was a cold night in Dresden, East Germany, and it would change the course of Vladimir Putin's life. The Berlin Wall had just fallen. All over East Germany, angry crowds roamed the streets, lashing out its symbols of communist rule.

That night in Dresden, they found a target, the local KGB headquarters. A mob surrounded the building. As the hour grew later, the crowd grew larger.

Inside, peering through the curtains, was a young KGB lieutenant colonel named Vladimir Putin.

GESSEN:He was terrified that they were going to storm the building.

ZAKARIA:Putin was a junior officer, but the boss was away, he was in charge.

LUCAS:The Berlin Wall has come down. Police went in to help, and he called for instructions.

ZAKARIA:Desperate for help, Putin dialed KGB headquarters in Moscow over and over again.

Finally, one official told him simply, Moscow is silent.

GESSEN:And I think it felt like a deep betrayal to him.

ZAKARIA:Vladimir Putin was on his own. He went down into the boughs of the building and fired up the furnace.

REMNICK:He finds himself in the basement, at a furnace, shoveling documents as he hears demonstrations out on the streets.

LUCAS:They are burning the secret files so far that the furnace is blowing up.

ZAKARIA:Putin torched thousands of pages of KGB documents in secrets as the crowd closed in. With the fire still raging, Putin went outside and faced the mob by himself. "There are armed guards inside," he told them. "They will shoot you."

LUCAS:And he's able to bluff his way out of this and tell the crowd, "Don't try it here, you're going to get hurt."

ZAKARIA:Putin's threat worked, the mob dispersed.

REMNICK:This is the drama that stays with Putin all the time; the fear of popular uprising.

ZAKARIA:Vladimir Putin quells that fear with absolute control. This is what control looks like.

In one of the world's busiest cities, the streets are empty for Vladimir Putin's motorcade.

Twelve million people simply disappeared on Putin's inauguration day.


ZAKARIA:The event was perfectly produced for Russian television; every detail flawlessly planned -- almost every detail.

A few Russians did not follow the script.

IOFFE:Literally a block away from his inauguration was a cafe called Jean-Jacques where the opposition lie together and drink wine and drink coffee. And the riot police descend on the cafe and start arresting people sitting at their tables outside, turning over the tables, breaking cups and plates.

ZAKARIA:The crackdown was not shown on Russian television.

IOFFE:For 94 percent of Russians, their main source of news is television. If it didn't happen on television, it didn't happen.

ZAKARIA:Putin controls television.

REMNICK:There is absolutely no critical words about Vladimir Putin on the Russia airways -- none, not one word.

ZAKARIA:Putin controls everything in Russia.

GATES:Putin has an untrammeled authority.

REMNICK:I don't see any checks on his power. He is able to make singular, rapid decisions. The absolutism there is unlike anything I've seen in Russia.

ZAKARIA:All that power is propped up by an astonishing approval rating, over 80 percent, and that's according to American pollsters.


BLITZER:Donald Trump wins the presidency.


ZAKARIA:But when the United States elected a new president, it looked like Russia had fallen for a new leader.


ZAKARIA:There were toasts all over Moscow at the parliament known as the Duma, on talk shows and at bars.

(UNKNOWN):We are the champions of the world.

ZAKARIA:But, one man seemed utterly unsurprised by Trump's victory.


GESSEN:He's happy to say credits. And that means that he won the U.S. election, the man who's simultaneously the president of Russia and in- charge of the United States.

(UNKNOWN):Mr. Putin...

ZAKARIA:Trump's impersonators are everywhere in Russia.

TRUMP:You're fired, you're fired, you're fired.

ZAKARIA:But it could be an American TV program that best describes the Putin-Trump relationship.

GESSEN:I think Putin views Trump as an apprentice.

ZAKARIA:At the heart of all this are some deadly serious questions. Does Vladimir Putin have some kind of hold over Donald Trump? Did he tamper with the American elections?

I tried to ask him, Mr. Putin did not agree to answer my questions but his closest aide, Dmitry Peskov did.

PESKOV:The answer is very simple, no. You're humiliating yourselves saying that a country can intervene in your election process.

America, each country, country -- one of the most powerful country in the world, this is simply impossible.

ZAKARIA:We will get the truth of all of this, but to do that, we need to go back to the final days of the country Vladimir Putin love.

GATES:I think that down deep in Putin, there is this sense of extraordinary humiliation over the collapse of the Soviet Union because it wasn't just the Soviet Union, it was the Russian empire.

ZAKARIA:Putin returned home from his KGB posting in 1990 to a country he did not recognize. The USSR had been transformed by Mikhail Gorbachev and his policy of openness known as Glasnost.

REMNICK:There are a lot of things happened very quickly.

(UNKNOWN):Big Mac is Big Mac.

(UNKNOWN):Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola.

REMNICK:A romance with things west.

ZAKARIA:Freedom came fast and it exposed the rock at the heart of the Soviet communism. Across the Soviet Union, hundreds of thousands of people began demanding democracy and national independence. It was once again what Putin feared most -- the people rising up. And finally, the people won.

(UNKNOWN):Tonight in Moscow, at the Kremlin, the red flag of the failed Soviet Union at last came down and the flag of Russia throve.

GATES:Three hundred years of history erased.

ZAKARIA:Soviet institutions like the KGB simply seized to exist.

SANGER:Vladimir Putin views the breakup of the Soviet Union, as he said himself, to be the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. ZAKARIA:It was a traumatic time and it sparked a profound change in

Vladimir Putin. He became a politician, deputy mayor in his hometown of St. Petersburg. It was not a big job but Putin clearly had big dreams.

He commissioned this rarely seen documentary about himself, presenting Vladimir Putin, the credit read, "In Power." Weirdly, the soundtrack is from the Broadway show, "Cats."

The ambitious Putin may already have been looking toward Moscow because the Russian people were desperate for strong leadership. Under President Boris Yeltsin, the new democracy was a mess.

GESSEN:The entire Soviet system, it just collapsed.

ZAKARIA:The oligarchs, the men who profited on the spoils of communism, they became fantastically rich.

(UNKNOWN):They are selling more of its top fine cars in Russia than in all the rest of Europe.

ZAKARIA:But ordinary Russians was sinking into desperate poverty. There were dire food shortages, even starvation.

(UNKNOWN) (THROUGH TRANSLATOR):I don't know how to feed my kids without milk. I just don't know what we're going to do.

ZAKARIA:President Boris Yeltsin was in-charge, but he seemed increasingly unstable.

(UNKNOWN):He is drinking. He's barely being propped up.

ZAKARIA:Russians began calling for a new leader.

(UNKNOWN):They were tired of the embarrassments of Yeltsin.

ZAKARIA:Waiting in the wings was Vladimir Putin. He had taken a job in Moscow in the Kremlin hierarchy, and he had risen through the ranks with lightning speed.

(UNKNOWN):From city bureaucrat to Kremlin's superstar.

ZAKARIA:He had just become acting prime minister when it became blindingly clear the country needed a new president.

REMNICK:So Yeltsin was ready to topple over, and they settled on Putin because they knew that Yeltsin could retire and not be put in jail.

ZAKARIA:Boris Yeltsin was notoriously corrupt, but Kremlin power brokers wanted to protect him.

REMNICK:So the deal was made, the deal was made.

ZAKARIA:December 31, 1999.

(UNKNOWN):The surprise announcement from Boris Yeltsin that he is resigning as president and turning over power over to his Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin.

ZAKARIA:In the very first moments of the 21st century, Vladimir Putin became president of Russia. His first words, "We live in a competitive world, and we are not among its leaders." And right away, Putin began to change his country. He joined soldiers on the front lines of the war in Chechnya. He reassured Russians that better times were ahead.

"I think we'll get paid, and we'll have work."

The country quickly fell in love with Vladimir Putin. The number one song in Russia was called "A Man Like Putin."

(UNKNOWN):He's just very -- he's a beautiful man, you see?

ZAKARIA:But the biggest surprise, America also loved Vladimir Putin. President George W. Bush thought he'd found a kindred spirit.

BUSH:I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul.

ZAKARIA:Even Hollywood fell for the new Russian president. He bonded with stars at a charity dinner, but the honeymoon would soon come to a crashing halt.

CLINTON:He was a KGB agent, by definition, he doesn't have a soul.

ZAKARIA:Next, when Vladimir Putin met Hillary.

REMNICK:It's important to remember how much he despised Hillary Clinton.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:How many times will she leave her mark? How many ways will she light up the world? This is the woman.

ZAKARIA:At the heart of hacking scandal that rocked the 2016 presidential election was an old grudge.

C. CLINTON:Ladies and gentlemen, my mother, my hero and our next president, Hillary Clinton.

ZAKARIA:It went beyond ideology. It was personal. Vladimir Putin was not a fan of Hillary Clinton.

REMNICK:Of course, Vladimir Putin wanted Hillary Clinton to lose. He hated Hillary Clinton.

H. CLINTON:Prime Minister, we have a lot of problems in NAFTA...

ZAKARIA:The tension between the leaders had been brewing for years. In 2001, another American leader George W. Bush vouched to Putin.

BUSH:I was able to get a sense of his soul. H. CLINTON:Thank you, thank you.

ZAKARIA:But on the campaign trail in 2008, Hillary Clinton had a different 2take.

CLINTON:I could have told him he was a KGB agent. By definition, he doesn't have a soul. I mean, this is a waste of time. Right?

(UNKNOWN):Recently, Mrs. Clinton said that you as a former KGB agent, by definition, can't have no soul.

ZAKARIA:Putin's reply, "Statements shouldn't be guided by their hearts, they should use their heads." Clinton had a lot of tough words for Putin over the years.

H. CLINTON:He is a very arrogant person to deal with.

We have to stand up to his bullying. He is somebody who will take as much as he possibly can.

ZAKARIA:But it was what happened in 2011 that marked a point of no return. It began with the Arab Spring protest early that year, the kind of popular uprising that Putin dreaded.

REMNICK:He begins to see himself through the eyes of Hosni Mubarak.

ZAKARIA:Mubarak of Egypt was facing prosecution. Syria's Bashar al- Assad was on the ropes. Libya's strong man Muammar Gaddafi met a particularly gruesome fate, brutally killed after begging for his life.

Putin may have feared the same bloody fate for himself. Just a few weeks later, rebellion arrived in Russia. Tens of thousands rallied in the streets of Moscow, the biggest protests there since the fall of the Soviet Union.

IOFFE:People were hanging off lamp posts. People were in the streets. It's really shocking.

ZAKARIA:Putin was now living the same nightmare he had endured as a KGB officer in East Germany from 1989. This time, in his own backyard, and he wasn't even president at the time. He was prime minister, having handed the presidency over to his associate Dmitry Medvedev.

IOFFE:As the winter went longer and longer and got colder and colder, the protests got bigger and bigger.

ZAKARIA:As Vladimir Putin saw people turning against him, Hillary Clinton weighed in.

H. CLINTON:The Russian people like people everywhere deserved the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted.

IOFFE:When Putin hears something like that, I imagine he hears Bush talking about Saddam Hussein. He hears that as, "They are coming for me. They're trying to drive me from power. What the hell do you know about my people and whether they deserve to have their voices heard? Like, I'll you if they should have their voices heard."

ZAKARIA:Russians had a lot of reasons to be angry.

That fall it was announced that Putin would run for president again for a third time. That meant that he could potentially rule Russia until 2024.

IOFFE:Some people said, "Oh, my god, I'm going to die with this guy in power."

ZAKARIA:A few months later, the elections for Russia parliament were a farced.

H. CLINTON:We do have serious concerns about the conduct of the elections.

LUCAS:Hillary Clinton called out the election's reading. I do think she were less quick how badly that was going to go down.

ZAKARIA:With his back against the wall, Putin turned the tables. He blamed the protests on Hillary Clinton, claiming that she was the one who incited them with her complaints about the election.

H. CLINTON:There are growing restrictions on the exercise of fundamental rights.

REMNICK:Quote/unquote, "She sent a signal," that was his words.

ZAKARIA:Putin's strategy propelled him to victory. In March 2012, he won the re-election handedly. Fighting back tears after a tense fight to maintain his power. He may have won the day but Vladimir Putin never forgot about the woman who had kicked him when he was down.

Do you think he'd resolved you interfered with my elections who can play this game?

GATES:I think that that's the line of thinking that led him to the intervention. I mean, I'm totally convinced that Russians were meddling and intervening covertly.

ZAKARIA:U.S. Intelligence concluded, that Putin personally ordered the campaign to influence the American election, in part because he holds a grudge for Clinton's comments in 2011.

Putin has denied that Russia was hacking the Democrats.

PUTIN (Through Translator):I don't know anything about that. You know how many hackers there are today. It's an extremely difficult thing to check.

ZAKARIA:The Russians allegedly focused their attack on a particularly weak target, the Democratic National Committee.

SANGER:You could have broken into the DNC with a can opener. This took less work to get into the DNC's computer systems than it took the Watergate burglary to get into the DNC offices back during the Nixon campaign.

(UNKNOWN):More than 1900 e-mails released just...

ZAKARIA:In the middle of a tight race...

(UNKNOWN):The leak revealed transcripts from some...

ZAKARIA:Embarrassing emails mysteriously leaked from the Clinton campaign were all over the news.

(UNKNOWN):WikiLeaks has released a new batch of stolen e-mails.

(UNKNOWN):Another round of stolen e-mails.

(UNKNOWN):The Clinton campaign knows this could be a...

(UNKNOWN):This latest leak pretty much a Trump dream come true.

ZAKARIA:Donald Trump was delighted by Clinton's misfortunes.

TRUMP:Russia, if you're listening, I hope you are able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing.

BLITZER:Donald J. Trump will become the 45th President of the United States...

ZAKARIA:In the end, America's election went Putin's way.

TRUMP:I've just received a call from Secretary Clinton.

PESKOV:Hillary Clinton was quite negative about our country and her attitude.

TRUMP:It wouldn't be bad to get along with Russia, right? It wouldn't be bad.

PESKOV:And to the contrary the other candidate, Donald Trump was saying that we have to find some understanding.

TRUMP:When people like me, I will like them, even Putin.

PESKOV:Whom would you like better?

H. CLINTON:This is not the outcome we wanted.

ZAKARIA:Hillary Clinton suffered one of the most shocking defeats in American history.

CLINTON:I know how disappointed you feel because I feel it, too.

ZAKARIA:At least in part, some observers say because of the alleged hacking operation.

CLINTON:This is painful and it will be for a long time. ZAKARIA:Putin had apparently avenged his old grudge.

TRUMP:So help me God.

(UNKNOWN):Congratulations, Mr. President.


ZAKARIA:And he may have achieved even more.

(UNKNOWN):The 45th president of the United States...

REMNICK:If Donald Trump is in some way compromised, if the Russian government has something that it feels has on him in terms of leverage, that's a very serious thing. I don't suggest for a second that I have the answer to this question, but we can't just let this matter drop.

ZAKARIA:Up next...

(UNKNOWN):A prominent Russian opposition figure has been shot and killed...

(UNKNOWN):Four of the shots hit him in the back.

(UNKNOWN):Right out in the open just blocks from the Kremlin...

ZAKARIA:The story of Vladimir Putin might want the world to forget.


ZAKARIA:February 27, 2015, nearly midnight. A man and woman walked across the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge, right next to the Kremlin, a highly monitored area littered with surveillance cameras. All those cameras but amazingly, this grainy, far away video is the only footage that exists of a critical moment in recent Russian history.

Inside the circle of what a Moscow TV station purports to be Boris Nemtsov and his girlfriend. Nemtsov was, of course, the well-known Russian opposition leader who led the protests in 2011. The station says that while the snow plow hides the two from camera's view, Nemtsov was killed, shot four times in the back.


(UNKNOWN):A prominent Russian opposition figure had been shot and been killed in...

(UNKNOWN):Four of the shots hit him right in the back.

(UNKNOWN):Right out in the open just blocks from the Kremlin...


ZAKARIA:So who murdered Boris Nemtsov? Vladimir Putin condemned the killing, calling it shameful and

impunitive. And five Chechens were recently found guilty in connection with the murder, but many doubts remained.

IOFFE:The assassination was extremely professional.

ZAKARIA:Russian-born journalist Julia Ioffe says that only one group could be that professional.

IOFFE:Nemtsov's girlfriend, who he was walking with, didn't realize he had been shot until the car was already driving off. It was quick and professional, and nobody has that kind of training outside the government.

ZAKARIA:Senator John McCain takes it one step further.

JOHN MCCAIN:Vladimir Putin is a thug and a murderer, and a killer, and a KGB agent. He had Boris Nemtsov murdered in the shadow of the Kremlin.

PESKOV:This is personal insult. This is a lousy behavior from a politician.

ZAKARIA:That is Putin's top aid and spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.

PESKOV:It's nonsense, it's nonsense. There is nothing to command on.

ZAKARIA:Over the course of Putin's time and power, his regime has been accused of involvement in the deaths of many of its critics, including the journalists Anna Politkovskaya and the former KGB agent, Alexander Litvinenko.

The scholar of Russian studies Stephen Cohen responds...

COHEN:There's not a shred of evidence; there is not a single crack (ph) to sustain these allegations, but they take on a kind of folklorish reality.

ZAKARIA:The allegations that Putin might have played role in Boris Nemtsov's murder may stem in part from the evidence that Nemtsov had been accumulating against the president.

(UNKNOWN):Nemtsov was about to reveal information that would prove Russia's involvement in the conflict in Ukraine.

ZAKARIA:That Ukraine report was released a few months after Nemtsov's murder, but there was an earlier Nemtsov report published in 2012 that also was embarrassing for Putin. It claimed the president had 43 planes, 15 helicopters and four yachts at his disposal, including one super yacht.

Then there are the palaces. Nemtsov's report says there were 20 2presidential palaces available to Putin at any time. One of the palaces known in the press simply as "Putin's Palace" was set to be worth $1 billion.

PESKOV:This is not true. This is actually reverted to commenting of reality.

ZAKARIA:Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov says every world leader, especially the leader of a nuclear power like Russia or the United States, has access to state-owned homes and planes and helicopters that are safe and have secure communications.

PESKOV:Of course, he -- he uses these vehicles, this plane, these residences, but it's not his property. The rumors about his wealth or the rumors about the palaces has nothing to do with the reality. It's just -- it's just lies.

ZAKARIA:The rumors of Putin's wealth, well, some of them are simply staggering.

BROWDER:And some people including myself believe that he's the richest man in the world or one of the richest man in the world.

ZAKARIA:Bill Browder was once the largest foreign investor in Russia, now he's one of Vladimir Putin's toughest critics. We talked in 2015.

You really think Putin is the richest man in the world?

BROWDER:I really think that. And -- and I'm not just saying that crazily.

ZAKARIA:Estimate his net worth?

BROWDER:$200 billion.


BROWDER:I believe that it's $200 billion.

ZAKARIA:That would make Putin almost two and a half times wealthier than the man whom Ford says is the world's wealthiest, Bill Gates.

PESKOV:All these rumors, all these accusations about billions and billions of dollars as his fortune, this is not true. Don't believe in that. He's got nothing. He's got what he writes in his personal financial declaration every year.

ZAKARIA:Putin's most recent financial declaration says that he personally owns less than half an acre of land of roughly 900 square foot apartment and a 200 square foot garage, into which maybe he puts the vehicles listed in that document -- a vintage Russian Sedan, a Russian 4x4 and a trailer like this one. The document does not say how much Putin has in the bank or in investments.

Top U.S. Treasury official Adam Szubin talked to the BBC.

SZUBIN:I'm not in the position to give you figures, but what I can say is that he's supposedly draws a state salary of something like $110,000 a year. That is not an accurate statement of the man's wealth.

ZAKARIA:But if Putin was getting rich, he surely wasn't the only one in Russia.

Take this statistic. In 1996, when Putin had just moved to Moscow and begun his climb to the top, there were no billionaires in all of Russia.

By 2014, Russia had 111 billionaires according to Forbes. And while Moscow now has multiple Bentley dealerships to satisfy its bevy of billionaires, the average wage in Russia is less than $450 a month. That's lower than the average wage in China according to Stratford.

But despite all the allegations, despite all the accusations, the fact remains Vladimir Putin is remarkably popular in Russia. Why? We'll tell you when we come back.


ZAKARIA:The most powerful man in the world is also the most popular. Vladimir Putin's approval rating has soared as high as 86 percent in recent years. Consider that American presidents are happy when they break the 50 percent mark.

How has he done it? Partly, it's the cult of Putin. He has mastered the art of the manly photo op. He rides horseback bare-chested, finds ancient treasures underwater. He rides a submarine to the bottom of the Black Sea, flies planes, fights forest fires.

(UNKNOWN):There is something ridiculous about a middle-age world leaders riding around shirtless on a horse like Conan the Barbarian after a dozen donuts. Who thinks this looks good?

REMNICK:Everything that we find ridiculous about Vladimir Putin is very appealing in a media universe that he controls absolutely.

ZAKARIA:Perhaps the foundation of the Putin juggernaut is a political truism no matter where you live. It's the economy stupid.

After the chaotic years of Boris Yeltsin, Putin stepped in and stabilized the country and he rode the wave of ever-rising oil prices, which in Russia's resource rich economy translated into rising wages and storing stocks indices.

Then in late 2014, the party stopped. Oil prices slumped and soon after, came western economic sanctions. Vladimir Putin has navigated hard times well. He has slashed social spending, implemented an austerity program, allowed the ruble to fall and his central bank has kept inflation in check.

Putin is a fiscal conservative.

REMNICK:The outward seeming aspect of wealth looks closer to Dubai than it does to Moscow 30 years ago, just an amazing transformation.

ZAKARIA:Add to the economics Putin's secret sauce, nationalism. And it surged in 2014 after an invasion that shocked the world.

OBAMA:Bigger nations must not be allowed to bully the small. ZAKARIA:Vladimir Putin grabbed a piece of Ukraine for Russia. The

west was horrified.

LUCAS:That was something that Adolf Hitler did in the 1930s. We thought those days were gone.

ZAKARIA:But it all looked very different through Russian eyes.

KISSINGER:I have never met a Russian who accepted the notion of Ukraine as a totally separate state.

ZAKARIA:Of course, many Ukrainians deeply resented the invasion, but not Russians. They see it as the revival of a deep sense of power and national destiny.

GATES:Putin has given them their pride back. Russia is once again a great power.

ZAKARIA:Putinism is an ideology of social conservatism, of anti- westernism, but above all of national power. Putin might say he has made Russia great again. Sound familiar?

TRUMP:We will make America great again.

ZAKARIA:Like Putin, Trump has used nationalism to boost his support, but many believe that Donald Trump is no Vladimir Putin.

REMNICK:Putin is a much more practiced, subtle, cunning player. He's playing in poker terms, a couple of deuces at the highest level. He has reasserted Russia on the world stage from a position of relative weakness like nobody I can think of. That's an amazing feat of geopolitics.


HOWELL:Finally, here are my thoughts on he, whom we have called the most powerful man in the world. First let me explain the title.

The United States and China for that matter are more powerful countries than Russia, of course, but the power of a head of state is determined both by the country's strength and the capacity he or she has to exercise that power unilaterally, unconstrained by other institutions, parties or political forces. And combining those two metrics, it's easy to see why Vladimir Putin rises to the top. He has created what he calls a vertical of power unlike any we have seen in other great nations.

As the Russian chess grand master Gary Kasparov has noted, himself a harsh critic of Putin, "The entire structure of Russian political authority rest on one man."

When the czar died, after all, you knew the process by which his successor, his son, would be elevated. When the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party died, the standing committee in the politburo would select his successor. But when Putin dies, I almost said if, what will happen? No one knows. To understand Putin, you have to understand Russia. The last hundred

years for that country have seen the fall of the czar, the collapse of democracy, the Great Depression, World War II with its tens of millions of Russian dead, Stalin's totalitarian brutalities, the collapse of communism, the breakup of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin's years of chaos and corruption, and then comes Vladimir Putin who ushers in almost two decades of stability and in popular perception rising standards of living and increasing prominence and respect in the world.

Respect is important. Russians have immense national pride. Russia is after all the largest country on the planet, 48 times larger than Germany. It encompasses 11 time zones and straddles Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It is also a rich country containing some of the largest deposits of raw materials from oil and natural gas to nickel and aluminum.

Culturally it has often thought of itself as the third Rome, preserving Christianity even as Rome and Byzantium fell to the barbarians.

Putin understands Russia, but he also understands the world. He's not foolish enough to make a frontal assault on America or Europe. He knows how to use power asymmetrically with cyber tools and disinformation. He understands the vulnerabilities of free societies, the internal divisions and discord and the gaping openness. He understands the fragility of institutions like the European Union and NATO and ideas like integration and diversity.