Moscow (CNN)The first time I saw Vladimir Putin face-to-face was a cold night in March 2000. He had just won his very first election and had arrived at his campaign headquarters, ready to answer questions from reporters.
Vladimir Putin: From accidental president to defender of Fortress Russia
Putin, then 47, was new to politics and he looked it: dressed informally in a grey pullover sweater, his face thin and serious.
Just three months before, president Boris Yeltsin had shocked the world, resigning on New Year's Eve and naming Putin -- a KGB veteran and former head of the Federal Security Service -- acting president.
"I never thought I would ever take part in elections," Putin said disdainfully. "I thought it was absolutely immoral to hand out promises right and left, knowing that certain promises could not be kept."
It was a classic Putin comment, although I didn't realize it at the time: the non-candidate, motivated, it seemed, by the sole desire to pull Russians out of poverty.
"People are tired," he said wearily, "things are tough for them, they expect better things from me. But, of course, miracles don't happen."
A decade later, Russians were living better, thanks to economic reform and skyrocketing oil prices that filled the nation's coffers.
But there was another side to that early Vladimir Putin. Russia was mired in a war against Chechen militants and, in an election stunt less than a week before the 2000 vote, Putin climbed into the cockpit of an SU-27 fighter jet and flew it to the Chechen capital, Grozny. Meeting with members of his armed forces, he vowed to destroy the rebels.
The tough-guy image worked. It was a role that would grow only stronger throughout his presidency.
On Sunday, eighteen years later, on another cold election night, a 65-year-old Putin stepped onto a stage at a victory celebration in downtown Moscow.
His face fuller, a few wrinkles in the corners of his eyes, but striding athletically toward the crowd in a fur-trimmed parka, Putin thanked them for his fourth electoral win, calling it "recognition of what we have done over the past years - in very difficult circumstances."
"We are going to think about the future of our great Motherland, of the future of our children! We are destined for success!"
These days, Vladimir Putin cannot promise his fellow Russians that they will live better economically: Western sanctions and lower energy prices have seen to that.
Instead, he's offering them membership in a kind of national team, united in overcoming all obstacles to victory.
"The main threat and our main enemy is the fact that we are falling behind," he warned in his March 19th State of the Nation address to Parliament. "We must take ownership of our destiny."
The Russian president offers few specifics of how to do that -- or even what it means. He has no detailed economic program yet for what, according to the Russian constitution, should be his last term in office.
For many of his supporters, however, the economy is not what defines Vladimir Putin. It's his role as "Guardian of the Nation." Chechnya was pacified long ago. The enemy today is the West: the US, the UK and Europe as a whole.
A graphic example: his carefully choreographed rollout of new nuclear weapons during his speech to Parliament.
Accompanied by a slick video, he introduced what he ominously called "a completely new type of weapon" that America cannot overcome: a strategic nuclear weapons system with a nuclear-powered missile.
Warning those who might "seek unilateral advantage against Russia," Putin said: "No one has managed to restrain Russia."
Actions excoriated in the West win applause at home: Moscow's military incursion in Syria demonstrated Russia's new military prowess -- and Putin's willingness to employ it.
Russia is now "Fortress Russia," with Putin as its defender, an image hammered home by state-owned media, a stance supported BY some Russian voters smarting over what they perceive as insults, attacks and "Russophobia" from the West.
Even political blowback from the London poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal may have helped Vladimir Putin in this election.
"Our people always unite in difficult times," TASS news agency quoted Ella Pamfilova, head of Russia's Election Commission, as saying.
"So, many thanks to some leaders -- I will not name them -- from Western states who contributed to the unity of our people. They should know: we never relax when there is such pressure."
In 2018, Putin's Russia needs an external enemy and, for now at least, the newly re-elected president has one.