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Why Vladimir Putin is the world’s most powerful man

Fareed Zakaria: To understand Vladimir Putin, you have to understand Russia.

Originally appeared at

In my latest documentary, we describe Russian President Vladimir Putin as the most powerful man in the world. But why? After all, the United States — and China, for that matter — are more powerful countries than Russia.

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 and political forces. And combining those two metrics, it’s easy to see why Vladimir Putin rises to the top of list.

Putin has created what he calls a “vertical of power,” something unlike any we see in other great nations. As the Russian chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov — himself a harsh critic of Putin — has noted, the entire structure of Russian political power rests on one man. When the czar died, you knew the structure that would endure and 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 wrote 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 monarchy, the collapse of democracy, the great depression, World War II with its tens of millions of Russians dead, Stalin’s totalitarian brutalities, the collapse of communism, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and Boris Yeltsin’s years of chaos and corruption.

Then comes Vladimir Putin, who ushers in stability and, in popular perception, rising standards of living and increasing prominence and respect in the world. That respect is important.

Russians have immense national pride. Russia is the largest country on the planet — 48 times larger than Germany and encompassing 11 time zones that straddle Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Russia 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 is not foolish enough to make a frontal assault on America or Europe. Instead, he knows how to use power asymmetrically, with cyber tools and disinformation.

He also understands the vulnerabilities of free societies — their internal divisions and discord, and their gaping openness. He understands the fragility of institutions like the European Union and ideas like integration and diversity.

In other words, Vladimir Putin understands us very well. But all that begs an important question: Do we — and does Donald Trump — really understand him?

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.

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Marc Leif
Marc Leif
August 18, 2017

I personally dislike the term “most powerful”. It frames statecraft in a macho, belligerent way; suggesting being a skillful leader as synonymous with forcing ones will on defenseless others. I believe strongly that Vladimir Putin is truly one of the most skillful statesmen of all time. By any measure, his leadership of Russia from a state of near total collapse to its present role of leadership in the world is nothing short of astounding. This economic recovery in a nation spanning 11 time zones is alone one for the history books. Add bringing the US neocon / zionist destruction of… Read more »

August 19, 2017

President Putin puts the Russian People that have made post Soviet Russia a bastion of freedom before his own personal ambitions.

There have been few leaders throughout history who have done so. The Russian people are his strength.

Great Expectations
Great Expectations
August 19, 2017

He’s cute too. No, really. And the story of his father’s narrow escape from death; of his mother’s near-death and rescue by his father, both before he was born; the tragedy of the death of his two older brothers; it’s remarkable that he lived at all. The stuff of legend, almost. A most remarkable man and leader.

Tommy Jensen
Tommy Jensen
August 19, 2017

Lets take it by example.

Avi Unobtaniumstein
Avi Unobtaniumstein
August 20, 2017

“But when Putin dies — I almost wrote if — what will happen? No one knows.” Seriously? When that happens – if not before – there will be elections and Russians will elect a new president. Why are you making such a big thing out of it. He is just a citizen doing a job he was elected to do and it seems he takes his job seriously and performs his duties diligently. There have been problems, but on the whole many things have improved under his stewardship since 2000. When people can find someone better he will step aside.… Read more »

Jane Karlsson
Jane Karlsson
August 21, 2017

“he knows how to use power asymmetrically, with cyber tools and disinformation”

My impression is that Putin knows better than anyone what a disaster disinformation can be for the ones using it. He would avoid it, which is not to say he’d put all his cards on the table at once. He doesn’t do that either.

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