Ms James was asked: “Other than Vladimir Putin, who is your main political hero?” She replied that both Mr Churchil and Ms Thatcher were.
She then confirmed the list of the three politicians - including Mr Putin - was an accurate rundown of the figures she most admired.
Ms James's admission follows a 2015 interview where she called the Russian President a “strong leader”.
She said: “I admire [Mr Putin] from the point of view that he’s standing up for his country.”
When questioned about whether she respected his invasion of other countries, she said: "No, no. He's standing up for his country. He's very nationalistic."
Ms James’s first interview as leader of the party came as Russia headed to the polls, in an election expected to grant Mr Putin another five years in office.
Other politicians who have announced their respect for the controversial leader include the former leader of the SNP Alex Salmond, former Ukip leader Nigel Farage and US Presidential hopeful, Donald Trump.
In 2014, Mr Farage named Mr Putin as the world leader he most admired. He praised the Russian President’s “brilliant” handling of the civil war in Syria, although said he did not admire him as a human being.
Mr Trump has repeatedly praised the Russian ruler, saying he was “doing a great job” at “rebuilding Russia” and claiming: “I think I’d get along very well with Vladimir Putin.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies