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CNN SPECIAL REPORTS

Vladimir Putin: The Most Powerful Man in the World. Aired 11p- 12m ET

Aired July 20, 2018 - 23:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[23:00:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The following is a following CNN report.

(MUSIC PLAYED)

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

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He is really much of a leader.

He's done an amazing job.

So smart.

HILLARY CLINTON, (D) FORMER UNITED STATES PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: KGB agent, by definition, he doesn't have a soul.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Vladimir Putin is a thug and a murderer and a killer.

BILL BROWDER, EXECUTIVE OFFICER OF HERMITAGE CAPITAL MANAGEMENT: He's the richest man in the world. Hundreds of billions of dollars of wealth.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAKARIA: What does he want from Donald Trump?

JULIA IOFFE, STAFF WRITER, THE ATLANTIC: Putin is going to eat him like a sandwich.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

TRUMP: You're the puppet.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAKARIA: Just how powerful is he?

ROBERT GATES, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Putin has an untrammeled authority.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How did you check his power?

ZAKARIA: So powerful he apparently tried to rig the American election.

DAVID REMNICK, EDITOR, THE NEW YORK: Of course Putin wanted Hillary Clinton to lose. He despised Hillary Clinton.

DMITRY PESKOV, KREMLIN SPOKESMAN: Whom would you like better?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Vladimir Putin is not a friend to democracy. He is a crook.

ZAKARIA: After the strange summit between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in Helsinki, Americans are are asking, what did Putin get? And what more does what does he want? And is he really the most powerful man in the world?

December 5th, 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.

MASHA GESSEN, PUTIN BIOGRAPHER: 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.

EDWARD LUCAS, SENIOR EDITOR, THE ECONOMIST: The Berlin Wall had come down. Police went won't came 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 bowels 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 street.

LUCAS: They are burning the secret file so fast that the furnace is blowing out.

ZAKARIA: Putin torched thousands of pages of KGB documents and 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 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.

[23:04:59] ZAKARIA: Vladimir Putin quelled that fear with absolute control. This is what control looks like. In one of the world's busiest cities, the streets are emptied for Vladimir Putin's motorcade. Twelve million people simply disappear on Putin's inauguration day.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Vladimir Putin.

ZAKARIA: In May, with his usual grandiosity, Putin assumed the presidency for the fourth time. He won the way he always does overwhelmingly. Putin's chief opponent was otherwise occupied. Opposition leader Aleksey Navalny was arrested while leading protest against the Russian president.

Much of this was not seen on Russian television.

The event was perfectly produced for Russian television. Every detail flawlessly planned, almost every detail. A few Russians did not follow the script.

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

REMNICK: Putin controls television. There's absolutely no critical words about Vladimir Putin on the Russian air waves, none, not one word. 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 ever 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.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: 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.

(FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are the champions of the world.

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

(FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

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

ZAKARIA: At the heart of all these are some deadly serious questions. Does Vladimir Putin have some kind of hold over Donald Trump? We simply don't know. But one reality is now crystal clear. American intelligence has established that Putin interfered with our election in order to help Donald Trump.

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 yourself saying that a country can intervene in your election process. America, a huge country, a country number with the most powerful country in the world. This is simply impossible.

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

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.

[23:09:59] REMNICK: A lot of things happen very quickly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Big Mac is Big Mac.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola.

REMNICK: A romance with things western.

ZAKARIA: Freedom came fast, and it exposed the rock at the heart of 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tonight in Moscow at the Kremlin, the red flag of the failed Soviet Union at last came down, and the flag of Russia rose.

GATES: Three hundred years of history erased.

ZAKARIA: Soviet institutions like the KGB simply ceased to exist. DAVID SANGER, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: 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 credits read, in power. Weirdly, the sound track 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 became fantastically rich.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mercedes Benz is selling more of its top line cars in Russia than in all the rest of Europe.

ZAKARIA: But ordinary Russians were sinking into desperate poverty. They would die of food shortages, even starvation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (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.

REMNICK: He is drinking. He's barely being propped up.

ZAKARIA: Russians began calling for a new leader.

REMNICK: They're 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: From city bureaucrat to Kremlin superstar.

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

REMNICK: So when 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. A deal was made.

ZAKARIA: December 31st, 1999.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The surprise announcement from Boris Yeltsin that he is resigning as president and turning over power 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.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We live in a competitive world, and we are not among its leaders.

ZAKARIA: 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.

[23:15:08] UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I think we'll get paid, and we'll have work.

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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's just very -- he's 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.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: 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.

How are you? So glad to see you.

ZAKARIA: Next, when Vladimir met Hillary.

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

[32:20:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How many times does she leave remark? How many ways did she light up the world? This is the woman.

ZAKARIA: At the heart of the hacking scandal that rocked the 2016 presidential election--

CHELSEA CLINTON, DAUGHTER OF HILLARY CLINTON: Ladies and gentlemen--

ZAKARIA: --was an old grudge. C. CLINTON: -- 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, Putin wanted Hillary Clinton to lose. He hated Hillary Clinton.

H. CLINTON: Prime minister, we have a lot of problems.

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

H. 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?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Recently, Mrs. Clinton said that you as a former KGB agent by definition can have no soul.

ZAKARIA: Putin's reply, "Statesmen 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's 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 protests 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 strongman, Muammar Gaddafi, met a particularly gruesome fate, brutally killed after begging for his life. Putin may have feared the same bloody fate for himself.

(CROWD CHANTING)

ZAKARIA: Just a few weeks later, rebellion arrived in Russia.

Tens of thousands rallied in the streets of Moscow. The biggest protest there since the fall of the Soviet Union. IOFFE: People were hanging off lampposts. 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 in 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 Putin saw people turning against him, Hillary Clinton weighed in.

(CROWD CHANTING)

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

[23:25:01] IOFFE: When Putin hears something like that, I imagine he hears Bush talking about Saddam Hussein. He hears that as, "They're 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 tell 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, he could potentially rule Russia until 2024.

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

ZAKARIA: A few months later, the elections for Russia's parliament were a farce.

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

LUCAS: Hillary Clinton called out the election, really. I don't think she realized quite 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 reelection handily. Fighting back tears after a tense fight to maintain his power.

(FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

ZAKARIA: 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 resolved, you indicated with my election to conflate this game?

GATES: I think that that's the line of thinking that led him to the intervention beginning as early as 2015.

ZAKARIA: Putin personally ordered a massive influence campaign to sway the 2016 election towards Trump, according to the CIA, the FBI and the NSA. Why? In part, because he holds a grudge against Clinton for her actions in 2011.

The alleged operation was sophisticated and multifaceted. An army of internet probes bank rolled by millions of dollars launch attacks against Clinton on social media including ads in key swing states.

FORMER REP. MIKE ROGERS (R), MICHIGAN: They're smart enough to know that social media is a way to touch Americans personally.

ZAKARIA: Thirteen Russians have been indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller in connection to the operation.

And elite hackers linked to Russian intelligence pillage the e-mails of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, releasing embarrassing information with devastating results.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: WikiLeaks has released a new batch of stolen e-mails.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Another round of stolen e-mails posted by--

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The Clinton campaign knows this could be a--

KING: 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're able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing.

BLITZER: Donald J. Trump will become the 45th president of the United States defeating--

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 her country and her attitude.

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

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 like them. Even Putin. PESKOV: Whom would like better?

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

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

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

ZAKARIA: At least in part because of the the alleged hacking operation.

H. CLINTON: This is painful. And it will be for a long time.

[23:30:03] ZAKARIA: Putin had apparently avenged his old grudge.

TRUMP: So help me God.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congratulations, Mr. President.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): And he may have achieved even more.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The 45th president of the United States.

DAVID REMNICK, EDITOR, THE NEW YORKER: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): Up next --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A prominent Russian opposition figure has been shot and killed in --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Four of the shots in the back.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right out in the open just blocks from the Kremlin.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): The story Vladimir Putin might want the world to forget.

[23:35:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA (voice-over): February 27th, 2015, nearly midnight. A man and woman walk 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 T.V. 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 snowplow hides the two from camera's view, Nemtsov was killed, shot four times in the back.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A prominent Russian opposition figure has been shot and killed in --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Four of the shots hit him in the back.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right out in the open, just blocks from the Kremlin.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): So who murdered Boris Nemtsov?

PUTIN: (Speaking in Foreign Language).

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Vladimir Putin condemned the killing, calling it shameful and impudent. And five Chechens were found guilty in connection with the murder, but many doubts remain.

JULIA IOFFE, JOURNALIST: The assassination was extremely professional.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): 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 (voice-over): In 2016, Senator John McCain took it one step further.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: 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.

DMITRY PESKOV, KREMLIN PRESS SECRETARY: This is personal insult. This is a lousy behavior from a politician.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): That is Putin's top aide and spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.

PESKOV: It's nonsense. It's nonsense. There is nothing to comment on.

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

Some Russia experts say there are dozens more like them. And then, there are those who live to tell. The man seen in this surveillance footage at a U.K. convenient store is Sergei Skripal, an ex-Russian spy. He moved here to Salisbury, England eight years ago after being released from prison in Moscow where he was convicted of selling secrets to Britain's MI6.

In March, Skripal and his daughter, Yuliua, were found unconscious on a shopping center bench in Salisbury. Police concluded that the pair had been poisoned with a military grade nerve agent. And while both managed to survive, U.K. authorities placed the blame squarely on one person.

THERESA MAY, PRIME MINISTER OF THE UNITED KINGDOM: It is tragic that President Putin has chosen to act in this way.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Putin shot back calling the accusations complete (inaudible) and rubbish.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA: (Speaking in foreign language).

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Pro-Kremlin T.V. went even further, blaming the former double agent himself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Speaking in foreign language).

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Back to that night on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge

BORIS NEMTSOV, RUSSIAN POLITICIAN: (Speaking in Foreign Language).

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nemtsov was about to reveal information that would prove Russia's involvement in the conflict in Ukraine.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): 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.

[23:40:04] Then there are the palaces. Nemtsov's report says there were 20 presidential palaces available to Putin at any time. One of the palaces, known in the press simply as Putin's Palace was said to be worth $1 billion.

PESKOV: This is not true. This is actually perverted commenting of reality.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): 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 uses these vehicles, these planes, these residences, but it's not his property. The rumors about his wealth, the rumors about the palaces has nothing to do with reality. It's just lies.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): The rumors of Putin's wealth? Well, some of them are simply staggering. BILL BROWDER, CEO, HERMITAGE CAPITAL MANAGEMENT: And some people including myself believe that he's the richest man in the world or one of the richest men in the world.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Bill Browder was once the largest foreign investor in Russia. Now, he's one of Vladimir Putin's toughest critics. We talked in 2015.

(on camera): You really think Putin is the richest man in the world?

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

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Can you estimate his net worth?

BROWDER: 200 billion.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Really?

BROWDER: I believe that it is 200 billion.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): That would make Putin wealthier than the man whom Forbes says is the world's wealthiest, Jeff Bezos.

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

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Putin's most recent financial declaration says that he personally owns less than half-an-acre of land, a roughly 900 square-foot apartment and a 200 square-foot garage into which maybe he puts the vehicles listed in that document. Two vintage Russian sedans, a Russian 4x4 and a trailer like this one. The document does not say how much Putin has in the bank or in investments. Former top U.S. treasury official, Adam Szubin, talked to the BBC.

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

ZAKARIA (voice-over): We may not know exactly how much Putin is worth. But we do know this, Vladimir Putin is remarkably popular in Russia. Why? We'll tell you when we come back.

[23:45:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA (voice-over): The most powerful man in the world is also the most popular.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Vladimir Putin.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): 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.

JON STEWART, THE DAILY SHOW HOST: There's something ridiculous about a middle-aged world leader riding around shirtless on a horse like Conan the Barbarian after a dozen donuts. He 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 (voice-over): Perhaps the foundation of the Putin juggernaut is a political truism no matter where you live. It's the economy, stupid.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After the chaotic years of Boris Yeltsin --

ZAKARIA (voice-over): 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 stock 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 had 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. It looks closer to Dubai than it does to Moscow 30 years ago. It's just an amazing transformation.

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

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Bigger nations must not be allowed to bully the small.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Vladimir Putin grabbed a piece of Ukraine for Russia. The west was horrified.

EDWARD LUCAS, SENIOR EDITOR, THE ECONOMIST: That's also the thing that Adolf Hitler did in the 1930s. We thought those days were gone.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): But it all looked very different through Russian eyes.

HENRY KISSINGER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: I have never met a Russian who accepted, then those who know of Ukraine as a totally separate state.

[23:50:05] ZAKARIA (voice-over): 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.

ROBERT GATES, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Putin has given them their pride back. Russia is once again a great power.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): 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 (voice-over): 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.

[23:55:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA (on camera): 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 grandmaster, Gary Kasparov has noted, himself a harsh critic of Putin, the entire structure of Russian political power now rests 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 and the politburo would select his successor. But when Putin dies, I almost said if, what will happen? No one knows.

Now, to understand Putin, you have to understand Russia. The last 100 years for that country have seen revolution, war, communism, poverty, collapse. And then comes Vladimir Putin. He ushers in two decades of stability and thanks to rising oil prices, increased standards of living and increasing prominence in the world.

PUTIN (through translator): Long live Russia.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Russians do have immense national pride. Russia is after all the largest country on the planet, 48 times larger than Germany. It encompasses 11 time zones. It straddles Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It craves a prominent place on the world stage. And with last week's summit in Helsinki, Putin appears to have accomplished that goal and perhaps much more.

What did America get from this meeting there? At the press conference after the summit, Donald Trump gave perhaps the most embarrassing performance by an American president I have witnessed or read about. His preposterous efforts to talk his way out of his troubles make him seem even more absurd.

TRUMP: The sentence should have been, I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be Russia. Sort of a double negative

ZAKARIA (voice-over): But what has been obscured by this disastrous and humiliating performance is the other strain in Trump's Russia narrative. Donald Trump has always said that having better relations with Russia would be a good thing.

TRUMP: Wouldn't it be a great thing if we could actually get along with Russia? Wouldn't it be a good thing?

ZAKARIA (voice-over): In this he is not alone. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both embraced the idea of a reset in relations with Russia

CLINTON: How are you? So glad to see you.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): It was one of many efforts of conciliation including one from George W. Bush.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Russia is not the enemy of the United States.

ZAKARIA (voice-over): But every reset and (inaudible) failed. It is time to recognize that Russia is not seeking to integrate itself into the American system of international order. It seeks to undermine that order. As Putin seeks to destabilize the west, he seems to understand the vulnerabilities of free societies, the internal divisions and discords and a gaping openness.

He understands the fragility of institutions like the European Union and NATO and ideas like integrations and diversity. In other words, Vladimir Putin understands us very well. The question is do we -- does Donald Trump really understand him?

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