“Behave or else,” say leaders of the world’s most powerful countries—and Vladimir Putin continues to choose “else.” He does it in ways that strengthen his hold on a nation increasingly under stress. The Russian President is significant in any year, because no one in the world has amassed greater political authority in a country so important to international politics and the global economy. Putin’s place on this year’s list comes thanks to his gravity-defying ability to confront the West in ways that boost his popularity in a country suffering through an economic meltdown for which his own policies are largely responsible. No leader arouses more fascination around the world, because his actions speak a language of defiance that so many of his people want to hear, lifting him to levels of popularity that other leaders can only envy. How long can he remain aloft? Don’t bet against him quite yet.
Bremmer, TIME’s foreign-affairs columnist, is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy