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CNN SPECIAL REPORTS

The Most Powerful Man In The World. Aired 11p-12a ET

Aired August 24, 2018 - 23:00   ET

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


[23:30:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

The following is a CNN special report.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN'S SPECIAL REPORT, THE MOST POWERFUL MAN IN THE WORLD HOST: Winston Churchill famously said of Russia, it is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, meet Vladimir Putin.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He is really very much the leader.

He is done an amazing job. So smart.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He is a KGB agent by definition. He doesn't have a soul.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Vladimir Putin is a thug and murderer and a killer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is the richest man in the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hundreds of billions of dollars.

ZAKARIA: What does he want from Donald Trump?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Putin is going to eat him like a sandwich.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He'd rather have a puppet as President.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're a puppet.

ZAKARIA: Just how powerful is he?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Putin has authority.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't see checks on his power.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Of course Putin wanted Hillary Clinton to lose. He despised Hillary Clinton. Whom would he relied better?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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 asking what did Putin get and what more 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 roam the streets, lashing out at 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 have Vladimir Putin.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He was terrified they were going to storm the building.

ZAKARIA: Putin was a Jr. Officer, but the boss was away. He was in charge. The Berlin Wall had come down. And he called for instructions.

Desperate for help, Putin dialed KGB headquarters in Moscow. Over and over again. Finally, one official told him simply, Moscow is silent.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it felt like a deep betrayal to him.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He finds himself in the basement at a furnace shoveling documents as he hears demonstrations out on the street.

ZAKARIA: They are burning the secret files and the furnace is blowing up.

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.

[23:05:00] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And he is able to bluff his way out of it and tell the crowd, don't try it here. You're going to get hurt.

ZAKARIA: Vladimir Putin Putin's threat worked. The mob dispersed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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. 12 million people simply disappear on Putin's inauguration day.

(SPEAKING RUSSIAN)

In May, with his usual grandiosity, Putin assumed the presidency of Russia for the fourth time. He won the way he always does, overwhelmingly. Putin's chief opponent was otherwise occupied. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was arrested while leading protests against the Russian President. Much of this was not seen on Russian television.

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

ZAKARIA: Putin controls television.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is absolutely no critical words about have Vladimir Putin on the Russian airwaves. None. Not one word.

ZAKARIA: Putin controls everything in Russia.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Putin has (inaudible) authority. I don't see any checks on his power.

(SPEAKING RUSSIAN)

ZAKARIA: He is able to make singular rapid decisions, the absolutism there is unlike anything I've seen in Russia. All that power has been propped up by an astonishing approval rating. At times it reached over 80 percent. And that is according to American pollsters.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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.

(SPEAKING RUSSIAN)

ZAKARIA: There were toasted 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.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He is 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 this are some deadly serious questions. Does Vladimir Putin have some kind of hold over Donald Trump? We simply don't know. Bit 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 questions about this, but his closest aides Dmitry Peskov did.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The answer is very simple, no. You're humiliating yourselves saying that a country can intervene in your election process. America, huge country, country, the most powerful country in the world, it is just 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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.

[23:10:14] 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot of things happen very quickly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A romance with things western.

(SPEAKING RUSSIAN)

ZAKARIA: Freedom came fast and 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.

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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 300 years of history erased.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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.

(SPEAKING RUSSIAN)

He commissioned this rarely seen documentary about himself presenting Vladimir Putin the credits read in power. Weirdly, the soundtrack is from the Broadway show "Cats." The ambitious Putin may have already been looking towards Moscow, because the Russian people were desperate for strong leadership. Under President Boris Yeltsin, the new democracy was a mess.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 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 the top line cars in Russia than in all of the rest of Europe. ZAKARIA: But ordinary Russians were sinking into desperate poverty.

There were dire food shortages, even starvation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is drinking -- he is barely being propped up.

ZAKARIA: Russians began calling for a new leader.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Kremlin superstar.

ZAKARIA: He had just become acting Prime Minister when it became blindingly clear that country needed a new President.

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

ZAKARIA: Boris Yeltsin was notoriously corrupt, but kremlin powerbrokers wanted to protect him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So the deal was made. Deal was made.

ZAKARIA: December 31st, 1999.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Surprise announcement from Boris Yeltsin. That he is resigning as President and turning over power to his Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin.

[23:15:08] 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (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 is just very -- he is a beautiful man, you see.

ZAKARIA: But the biggest surprise -- America also loved Vladimir Putin. President George W. Bush thought he found a kinward (ph) spirit.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward 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.

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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How are you? So glad to see you.

ZAKARIA: Next, when Vladimir met Hillary.

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

[23:20:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ladies and gentlemen --

ZAKARIA: Was an old grudge.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Of course Putin wanted Hillary Clinton to lose. He hated Hillary Clinton.

HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Prime Minister, we had 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.

CLINTON: Thank you. Thank you.

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

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 (TRANSLATOR): Mrs. Clinton said you as a former KGB

agent by definition can have no soul.

ZAKARIA: Putin's reply, statesmen shouldn't be guarded by their hearts. They should use their heads. Putin had a lot of tough words for Putin over the years.

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 protests early that year. The kind of popular uprising that Putin dreaded.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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. Caribbean's strongman Muammar Kaddafi 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.

[23:25:00] The biggest protests there since the fall of the Soviet Union.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People are hanging off lamp posts, people are on the streets. Really shocking.

ZAKARIA: Putin is 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.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 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.

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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When Putin hears something like that, I imagine he hears Bush talking about Saddam Hussein. He hears that as they're coming for me.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There he goes!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They're trying to drag me from power. What the hell do you know about my people and whether they deserve to have their voices heard? I'll tell you if they should have their voices heard. ZAKARIA: Russians had a lot of reasons to be angry.

(SPEAKING RUSSIAN)

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.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: 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's parliament were a farce.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We do have serious concerns about the conduct of the elections.

ZAKARIA: Hillary Clinton called out the election rating.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think she didn't know 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.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Quote and quote, she send a signal. That were his words.

ZAKARIA: Putin's strategy propelled him to victory. In March 2012, he won re-election handedly. Fighting back tears after a tense fight to maintain his power.

(SPEAKING RUSSIAN)

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 interfered with my elections, two can play this game?

ROBERT GATES, FMR SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I think that is 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 trolls, bank rolled by millions of dollars launched attacks against Clinton on social media including ads in key swing states.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're smart enough to know that social media is the way to touch Americans personally.

ZAKARIA: 13 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: WikiLeaks released a new batch --

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

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The latest leak --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pretty much of Trump dream come true.

[23:30:00] ZAKARIA: Several more Russians were indicted for that operation. Donald Trump was delighted by Clinton's misfortunes.

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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 just received a call from Secretary Clinton.

DMITRY PESKOV, PRESS SECRETARY, KREMLIN: Hillary Clinton was quite negative about our country and our 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 like them. Even Putin!

PESKOV: Who do you like better?

HILLARY CLINTON, FORMER FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: 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 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congratulations, Mr. President.

ZAKARIA: 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 compromise, 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.

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

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

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

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

[23:35:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA: February 27th, 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 T.V. station purports to be Boris Nemtsov and his his girlfriend. Nemtsov was of course a well known Russian opposition leader who led the protests in 2011. The station says that while this snow plow hides the two from cameras view, Nemtsov was killed, shot four times in the back.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A prominent Russian figure has been shot and killed.

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

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

ZAKARIA: So, who murdered Boris Nemtsov?

VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA: (UNTRANSLATED).

ZAKARIA: Vladimir Putin condemned the killing, calling it shameful. And five Chechens were found guilty in connection with the murder. But many doubts remain.

JULIA IOFFE, JOURNALIST: 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: 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.

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

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

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

ZAKARIA: 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. convenience store is Sergei Skripal, a 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, Yulia, 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 place the blame squarely on one person.

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

ZAKARIA: Putin shot back, calling the accusations complete dribble and rubbish.

PUTIN: (UNTRANSLATED).

[23:39:59] ZAKARIA: Pro-Kremlin T.V. went even further, blaming the former double agent himself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNTRANSLATED).

ZAKARIA: Back to that night on the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNTRANSLATED).

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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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 presidential 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 perverted commanding 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 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: The rumors of Putin's wealth, well, some of them are simply staggering.

BILL BROWDER, BRITISH FINANCIER: Some people including myself believe that he's the richest man in the world or one of the richest men in the world.

ZAKARIA: Bill Browder was once the largest foreign investor in Russia. Now, he is 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 I'm not just saying that crazily.

ZAKARIA: Can you estimate his net worth?

BROWDER: Two hundred billion.

ZAKARIA Really?

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

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

PESKOV: All these rumors, all these acquisitions about billions and billions of dollars of his fortune, this is not true. Don't believe in that. He's got nothing. He's got what he rides 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, 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 four-by-four, and a trailer like this one.

Former top U.S. treasury official, Adam Szubin, talked to the BBC.

ADAM SZUBIN, FORMER U.S. TREASURY OFFICIAL: I'm not in a 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: 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: The most powerful man in the world is also the most popular.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Vladimir Putin!

ZAKARIA: 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 barechested, finds ancient treasures underwater, he rides a submarine to the bottom of the Black Sea, flies planes, fights forest fires.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There is something ridiculous about a middle age world leader riding around shirtless on a horse like "Conan the Barbarian" after a dozen donuts.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: 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 soaring 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 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.

[23:50:00] Such an amazing transformation.

ZAKARIA: Add to the economics, Putin's secret sauce, nationalism.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNTRANSLATED).

ZAKARIA: And it surged in 2014 after an invasion that shocked the world.

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Bigger nations must not be allowed to bully the small.

ZAKARIA: Vladimir Putin grabbed a piece of Ukraine for Russia. The west was horrified.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's what Adolf Hitler did in the 1930s. We thought those days were gone.

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

HENRY KISSINGER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: 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 a revival of a deep sense of power and national destiny.

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

ZAKARIA: Although Putin's high approval ratings have dipped at times, he has a proven formula to rally supporters. 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!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE/UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: USA! USA!

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.

[23:55:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAKARIA: Finally, here are my thoughts on he whom we have called the most powerful man in the world. First, let me explain that 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 is 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 Garry 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 in 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, who ushers in two decades of stability and thanks to rising oil prices, increased standards of living and increasing prominence in the world.

PUTIN: (UNTRANSLATED).

ZAKARIA: Russians do have immense national pride. Russia is, after all, the largest country on the planet. Forty-eight 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.

After the strange summit in Helsinki, Putin appears to have seems to have accomplished that goal, and perhaps much more. What did America get from this meeting though? 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: I said it should have been, I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be Russia, sort of a double negative.

ZAKARIA: 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 relation 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 that be a good thing? ZAKARIA: He's not alone. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both embraced the idea of a (INAUDIBLE) relations with Russia.

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

ZAKARIA: 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: But every reset and (INAUDIBLE) failed. It's time to recognize that Russia is not seeking to integrate itself into the American built 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, their 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.

In other words, Vladimir Putin understands us very well. The question is, do we? Does Donald Trump really understand him?

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