Mr Salmond said he admires "certain aspects" of Mr Putin - but does not approve of a range of Russian actions.
The politician revealed his feelings in an interview with Alastair Campbell, the former Labour strategy director.
He offered the view as Russia was being accused of military aggression over the future of Crimea, which it has since annexed, in neighbouring Ukraine.
The wider interview will be published in GQ magazine on May 1. Mr Salmond singled out German chancellor Angela Merkel for praise, saying she is "pretty effective". And he remarked that while he admires Barack Obama's campaigning, he wondered why he could not have "done more".
Asked about Mr Putin, Mr Salmond said: "Well, obviously, I don't approve of a range of Russian actions, but I think Putin's more effective than the press he gets I would have thought, and you can see why he carries support in Russia."
Pressed on whether he admires the Russian leader, the First Minister said: "Certain aspects. He's restored a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing. There are aspects of Russian constitutionality and the inter-mesh with business and politics that are obviously difficult to admire. Russians are fantastic people, incidentally, they are lovely people."
Closer to home, he said Ukip leader Nigel Farage has a "certain bonhomie" - but said it is "not enough".
Mr Salmond continued: "He is having influence beyond his significance so you have to admire that. There is a constituency for saloon-bar politics and he has played it out. I have a sneaking regard for anyone who takes on powerful establishments."