Putin Admits ‘Patriotically-Minded’ Russian Hackers Might Have Interfered In 2016 U.S. General Election

President Vladimir Putin of Russia admitted on Thursday that “patriotically-minded” Russian hackers acting on their own initiative might have launched cyberattacks against the U.S. and other European countries. But Putin insisted that the Russian state has not been involved in hacking the U.S. and European countries.

He also absolved himself of blame, saying that if the attacks happened, they had nothing to do with him.

“If they (hackers) are patriotically-minded, they start to make their own contribution to what they believe is the good fight against those who speak badly about Russia. Is that possible?” Putin wondered aloud, according to the New York Times.

“Theoretically it is possible,” he concluded.

Putin made the statement while speaking at an event in St. Petersburg, Russia. He was answering a question about allegations that Moscow was planning to interfere in the German elections. He reacted to the question about Germany, saying that he did not believe hackers could influence elections in the U.S. or Europe.

The Russian president argued that the recent worsening of relations between the West and Russia might have prompted some “patriotically-minded” Russian hackers to act on their own. He compared hackers to artists whose actions are driven by unstable and unpredictable moods.

“Hackers are free people, just like artists who wake up in the morning in a good mood and start painting… they would wake up, read about something going on… and may try to add their contribution to the fight against those who speak badly about Russia.”

Some observers noted that Putin’s latest statement that individual Russian hackers working independently might have taken it upon themselves to launch cyberattacks against the U.S. represents a significant shift from his previous position when he insisted that no Russian hackers were involved in cyberattacks against U.S. institutions and campaign organizations during the 2016 general election.

Putin’s shift, according to analysts, could mean he is anticipating that ongoing Russia investigations in Washington could unearth convincing evidence of Russian involvement in hacks directed against U.S. political institutions and organizations. If that happens, Russia could simply defend itself against the accusations by saying the hackers were private individuals working independently and that the Kremlin was not involved in their activities.

Putin also alleged that some of the evidence suggesting Russian hackers participated in the cyberattacks could have been falsified to smear Russia.

“I can imagine that some do it deliberately, staging a chain of attacks in such a way as to cast Russia as the origin of such an attack,” Putin said. “Modern technologies allow that to be done quite easily.”

Observers also noted that Putin’s statement further strengthens suspicions that the Kremlin is anticipating the release of evidence implicating Russia in the hacking of U.S. institutions and campaign organizations during the general election.

Putin said that although the Kremlin had found Trump’s campaign statements about pursuing friendlier relations with Russia encouraging, existing opportunities for cooperation and closer ties between the U.S. and Russia in areas of mutual interest were blocked by ongoing “Russo-phobic hysteria” in Washington, a reference to ongoing investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 general election, and alleged links between the Trump campaign organization and Russian agents.

“It’s having an impact, and I’m afraid this is one of the goals of those who organize it [the Russia investigations],” Putin said. “They are [trying to] fine-tune the public sentiments to their liking [and] trying to establish an atmosphere that is going to prevent us from addressing common issues, say with regard to terrorism.”

However, he concluded that Russia still hoped friendlier relations between both countries could be established under Trump and that the Kremlin was waiting patiently for it to happen.

“This will end, sooner or later… we are patient, we know how to wait and we will wait.”

He described Trump as a “straightforward and frank person,” and said that although some people believe that Trump’s lack of political experience is a disadvantage, it is, in fact, an advantage because it allows Trump to look at issues with a “fresh set of eyes.”

Responding to a question about whether “patriotically-minded” Russian hackers could also try to interfere in the upcoming German elections, Putin said that the Russian state has never tried to interfere in the elections in Western countries and does not plan to do so.

U.S. intelligence agencies have accused Russia of hacking U.S. political institutions and organizations during the 2016 general election period as part of efforts to help the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to win the election.

France also expressed concern about Russian meddling in its elections after Putin publicly indicated Kremlin’s preference for Emmanuel Macron’s far-right opponent, Marine Le Pen. A leak of Macron’s campaign documents in the late hours of the French election campaign appeared to confirm fears about Russian interference.

[Featured Image by Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin Pool/AP Images]