Virtually unknown bureaucrat he appointed this week as prime minister, and failed to mention either of the two senior figures previously thought to be frontrunners.
At a meeting at his summer residence with the Guardian and a group of foreign academics and journalists yesterday Mr Putin praised Mr Zubkov, describing him as a "brilliant administrator and true professional". He also said his friend and former colleague from his days in St Petersburg could be a candidate for the presidential elections in March, something Mr Zubkov has said is a possibility.
With his popularity still high, the Russian press has been speculating that Mr Putin might change the constitution to seek a third term if, as expected, the ruling party, United Russia, wins the parliamentary elections set for December.
But Mr Putin insisted this was out of the question, suggesting this would be to tinker with democracy.
"I have no intention to reduce everything I've done to zero," he said. But he would still play a role in Russia's public life. "I hope to be fit enough and I have the desire to do so. Any future president will have to reckon with that."
Although he said he would "do anything" to ensure the next president's independence, analysts believe Mr Putin might want a weak one-term president so that he can return to power in 2012. Most political analysts believe that Mr Zubkov, 66 today, is too old to harbour genuine presidential ambitions.
On foreign policy, Mr Putin urged George Bush to set a timetable for a complete withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and said he failed to see what the US had achieved after four years of occupation.
"I believe it's better to delineate a timeframe for withdrawal," he said when asked by the Guardian about Iraq. Using the argument of many US senators he said this would "encourage the Iraqi leadership to concentrate if they know that the US will leave by a date certain.
"Without it they will have no commitment to build up their security forces."
Mr Putin, looking relaxed and confident, suggested the Americans had not brought Iraq real democracy. "What kind of democratisation can they have in the context of military action?" he asked.
He disagreed with those who recommend Iraq's partition as the best or only solution. "This would not end the Iraq problem but start a new one," he said.
Mr Putin's comments came hours after Mr Zubkov was endorsed by the Russian parliament as the new prime minister. MPs in the 450-seat state Duma voted by 381 to 47 to back his nomination.
Mr Putin was also directly critical of the US. "I don't interfere in your politics, please don't interfere in ours," he told a Washington academic referring to US funding for opposition groups and human rights organisations in Russia. He said independence was a very "expensive" thing in the modern world and only a few big countries such as India, China and Russia could afford it.
"Unfortunately, in some eastern European countries defence ministers are cleared by the US ambassador," before they are appointed, he said. "You know how decisions in Nato are taken," he said, hinting that the United States dominates the alliance undemocratically.
"Russia is a country which cannot live without its own sovereignty. It will either be independent and sovereign or it will be nothing," he said.
He brushed aside criticism of alleged pressure on independent political parties and claims that Russia had become more authoritarian under his rule. "We are developing a multi-party system. I've been thinking a lot about how Russia should be governed after 2008. I see no solution other than democracy and a multi-party system," he said. He implied Russia was following international laws. "We are not inventing our own Russian wheel or our own moonshine democracy," he said.
In a competent but uninspiring parliamentary debut yesterday, Mr Zubkov said he would like to make several reforms. But he made it clear he would leave politics to Mr Putin. "I believe our priorities should be the strategic targets - set out in the president's state of the nation addresses in the past few years," he told parliament.
Mr Zubkov said he wanted to improve pensions, keep inflation down, and help Russia's impoverished regions. He said he was keen to boost the defence industry and set up a new agency to fight corruption, Russia's most ubiquitous problem.
Mr Zubkov was deputy to the future president from 1992 to 1993 in the external affairs department of the St Petersburg mayor's office.
Mr Putin failed to mention the two men previously seen as the leading candidates to take over next spring. They are Sergei Ivanov, Russia's former defence minister, and Dmitry Medvedev - the first deputy prime minister. Ivanov was the favourite.
Vladimir Putin's interview yesterday was during a meeting of about 40 foreign experts on Russia invited by the state news agency, Ria Novosti. Most were from the US, Britain, Germany, China and Japan. He started the meeting with a two-and-a-half hour lunch in which he took questions then invited the group to a villa where he offered drinks on a terrace with a magnificent view to waves breaking 100 feet below. In a rare view for foreigners, he led the way through his own office, past his desk where the Russian flag stood behind his chair. The group, known as the Valdai Discussion Club, has come to Russia every summer since 2004. Mr Putin has received them in different venues each time. This year's location, in the subtropical luxury of Russia's Black sea coast, was the most exotic.