Russian President Vladimir Putin outpaced his American counterpart President Barack Obama in the 2013 Forbes ranking of the World’s Most Powerful People. Russian and foreign experts try to account for this shift and explain its meaning. 

Vladimir Putin. Photo: Vostock-Photo

Forbes ranked Russian President Vladimir Putin first and U.S. President Barack Obama second in its ranking of the World’s most powerful people in 2013, reflecting the perception that Russia’s credentials on the international stage are improving.

“Putin has solidified his control over Russia while Obama’s lame duck period has seemingly set in earlier than usual for a two-term president — latest example: the government shutdown mess,Forbes wrote. “Anyone watching this year’s chess match over Syria and NSA leaks has a clear idea of the shifting individual power dynamics.”

Annually the World’s Most Powerful People list brings together heads of state, CEOs and financiers, philanthropists and NGO chiefs, billionaires, and entrepreneurs who can seriously impact international affairs. As Forbes puts it, the ranking is a result of “the collective wisdom” of top editors. The group nominates hundreds of influential people before ranking the planet’s top 72 power brokers – one for every 100 million people on Earth — “based on their scope of influence and their financial resources relative to their peers.”

Nevertheless, Russian and foreign experts have mixed feelings about the ranking. Russia Direct interviews several analysts and authors to find out the reasons beyond the shift in the 2013 Forbes ranking and what it could mean for Russia and the United States, Putin and Obama. 

Gregory Feifer, former Moscow correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR), writer, author of “The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan”        

I think Putin's place at the top of the list is partly meant to highlight Obama's slip, especially because he's perceived to have outwitted the American president over Syria. Of course the idea that Putin is more powerful than Obama and a number of other world leaders is absurd. These kinds of reductive lists, which are popular among readers, generate interest by making controversial choices.

Forbes has done well in the past by naming Igor Sechin as Russia's second most powerful person, for example. But more than simply inaccurate in this case, it's irresponsible because it reinforces the Kremlin's view of foreign affairs as a zero-sum game in which its obstruction is good policy. Try justifying that to the thousands of Syrians suffering and dying in Syria every day.

The White House's apparent failure to understand the extent of NSA eavesdropping, the recent U.S. government shutdown and the reluctance to act over Syria have combined with other factors to make Obama increasingly perceived as someone not fully in charge of his administration. Those kinds of perceptions tend to swing in cycles – opinions were different after the passage of healthcare reform and the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

Much of what's happened since is out of the president's control: Republicans forced the shutdown, the NSA scandal appears to be another unfortunate legacy of the George W. Bush administration, and taking action in Syria would prompt a vast number of new problems.

However, Obama's image as someone who appears to be above wheeling and dealing in politics as well as rolling up his sleeves and fighting – which is consistent with his persona as someone who wants to bridge divides in our polarized country – is largely justified. In that sense, he's much closer to the university professor he once was than the inspirational, transformative leader many of his supporters hoped he would be.

His administration's lamentable handling of the Snowden affair has done more than anything to disillusion those who hoped Obama was serious about changing the kinds of post-9/11 security policies that have strained belief that the government is fully committed to observing individual liberties.

Barack Obama. Photo: U.S. White House / flicr:

Putin's ranking will probably prompt some to respect if not admire Putin. I'm sure people in the Kremlin are rubbing their hands with pleasure – that kind of attention-grabbing publicity accounts for much of Moscow's foreign policy, to the detriment of the country's long-term national interests, namely becoming a productive, responsible member of the international community. But the bad publicity over Pussy Riot, anti-gay discrimination, opposition leader Alexei Navalny and Russia's general corruption and authoritarianism have already made Putin into a well known brand – almost a caricature of an aging, angry would-be dictator – that would be hard to pierce.

We certainly shouldn't rely on these kinds of rankings, the main purpose of which tend to be boosting readership. They can be amusingly provocative and provide grist for debate--certainly Forbes is justified in pointing out that Russia has huge energy reserves and nuclear weapons and that Putin has cemented administrative control over his country. But that doesn't make up for Russia's relative weakness in international affairs or detract from the country's massive problems.

Evgeny Minchenko, president, International Institute for Political Expertise

The Forbes ranking reflects two aspects [of geopolitics]: objective and subjective. Objectively, today Putin consistently defends the principles of the international system and international law that was created in the 1940s after World War II [with the formation of the United Nations, the global governance concept and peaceful regulation of conflicts]. Although all this looks like Don Quixote’s attempts to tilt at windmills, Putin succeeds in slowing down the collapse of the older international system that inevitably will take place sooner or later. In addition, Putin’s role in settling down the Syrian conflict is another strong point to be ranked first in the ranking.

Subjectively, the Forbes ranking might be linked to a politicized game in the United States that aims at showing to American audience that Obama’s foreign policy is not effective and he falls behind the Russian leader, even though the economic, military and political potential between the two counties is incomparable. On the other hand, such tactics might increase the “hawks” trends in the American foreign policy.

The ranking also indicates that Putin already has an image of a tough political leader who defends Russia’s international interest and has a great deal of political heft. Indeed, he is one of the world’s most experienced and influential politicians who understand foreign and domestic policies of many countries.

Mikhail Troitskiy, associate professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University)

We should be mindful that the influence rankings are not based on real power resources and freedom in making political decisions of those people nominated by Forbes. Such rankings just include concrete achievements of these people for a certain year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to have climbed in this rating because of his role in settling down the Syrian conflict. Yet I don’t think this is big news today given the fact that last year President Putin was ranked third. Usually, such rankings put at the top leaders of those countries with strong presidential systems [like the U.S. and Russia].

And now Putin’s leading position in the 2013 Forbes rankings indicates that Russia is a big influential power that can impact international events and problems thanks to decent diplomacy.

Barack Obama (left) and Vladimir Putin at the 20 summit. Photo: AP

Will this ranking have any effect on the perception of Russia and Putin abroad? It depends from which angle we look at Putin. After all, nobody in the West questions Putin’s political heft and Russia’s influence as well as diplomacy. Regarding Putin’s contribution to domestic policy processes – this issue goes beyond the interests of the Forbes ranking and, obviously, Forbes doesn’t answer this question in its rankings. That’s why the image of President Putin in all its aspects is hardly likely to be changed after the publication of the new ranking.

Regarding Obama’s shift from first place to second, I think it is just a formality that a media outlet should follow to maintain interest in the ranking and the magazine among readers. In fact, I wouldn’t overestimate the significance of this rating and analyze the reasons of the shift in the rankings because, first, the ranking is very subjective. Second, its primary goal is to gain good publicity for Forbes, increase Internet traffic and be in the headlines of other media outlets.

Mark Galeotti, professor of global affairs at the New York University, Center for Global Affairs at School of Continuing and Professional Studies (SCPS), a specialist on Russian security affairs

It is interesting and even paradoxical that Forbes should name Vladimir Putin as the world's most powerful man at a time when in many ways he is looking weaker than ever at home. Weaker certainly does not mean weak, but ever since the opposition movement was galvanized by his eleventh-hour decision to return to the presidency in 2011, he has appeared much less sure-footed in his domestic politics. He has been uncertain as to how to deal with the challenge posed by Navalny and even his mastery of the elite, long the basis of his power, is a little more questionable.

However, he has certainly retained his skill in foreign policy and has played Russia's relatively weak hand quite brilliantly. Although questions remain about its long-term prospects, he has consolidated a Sino-Russian relationship that is in many ways driving global geopolitics, he has tightened Moscow's grip on southern and western Eurasia and in Syria has forced the United States to defer to Russian objections, and to do so openly and obviously.

Besides which, all rankings are relative, and my suspicion is not so much that Putin is being regarded as stronger than before so much as that the former number one, Barack Obama, now seems so much weaker. At home, Obama is mired in a messy constitutional stalemate in which even his victories are often Pyrrhic. Abroad, his friends have been alienated by the revelations about NSA snooping, his enemies cheered by his volte-face over Syria. In all honesty, China's Xi Jinping might have been a better candidate for the top slot, but in a choice between Putin and Obama, I imagine the Forbes team chose the leader of a weaker country who can at least still lead, over the chief executive of a stronger one, who appears shackled by his choices and his political system alike.