WATCH: Putin Suggests ‘Patriotically Minded’ Private Russian Hackers May Have Meddled in U.S. Election

Shifting from his previous blanket denials, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia suggested on Thursday that “patriotically minded” private Russian hackers could have been involved in cyberattacks last year that meddled in the United States presidential election.

While Mr. Putin continued to deny any state role in the hacking, his comments, made to reporters in St. Petersburg, Russia, departed from the Kremlin’s previous position: that Russia had played no role whatsoever in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and that, after Donald J. Trump’s victory, the United States had become the victim of anti-Russia hysteria among crestfallen Democrats.

Asked about suspicions that Russia might try to interfere in the coming elections in Germany, Mr. Putin raised the possibility of attacks on foreign votes by what he portrayed as free-spirited Russian patriots. Hackers, he said, “are like artists” who choose their targets depending how they feel “when they wake up in the morning.” Any such attacks, he added, could not alter the result of elections in Europe, America or elsewhere.

Artists, he said, paint if they wake up feeling in good spirits while hackers respond if “they wake up and read that something is going on in interstate relations” that prompts them to take action. “If they are patriotically minded, they start making their contributions — which are right, from their point of view — to the fight against those who say bad things about Russia,” Mr. Putin added, apparently referring to Hillary Clinton.

The Kremlin took a dim view of Mrs. Clinton, considering her far less friendly toward Russia than a President Trump would be because of her blunt criticism of Mr. Putin and his policies in Syria and elsewhere.

Mr. Putin’s remarks stopped far short of accepting the conclusions of American intelligence agencies that the Kremlin was behind the election campaign cyberattacks. But they opened room for verbal maneuvering by Moscow — and also by Mr. Trump — amid multiple investigations in the United States into Russian meddling, including one by the F.B.I. about the firing of its director, James B. Comey.

Perhaps worried that, as the investigations make headway, evidence will come to light that the Russian state or at least Russians were clearly involved in the hacking, Mr. Putin appeared to be setting up a pre-emptive line of defense, as the Kremlin did when it became difficult to simply deny initially secret Russian deployments to Ukraine in 2014, and to Syria in late 2015.

Swamped by evidence of Russian military involvement in Ukraine and then Syria, the Kremlin retreated from categorical denials to claims that Russians fighting in eastern Ukraine were Russian “vacationers” and that burly Russians who appeared in Syria were humanitarian aid workers. It later acknowledged that the supposed aid workers were Russian soldiers.

The questions of Russian hacking, and interaction between Russian officials and members of Mr. Trump’s inner circle, including his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have been a huge thorn in the side of the new administration. The furor has led to the dismissal of Michael T. Flynn as Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, forced his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to recuse himself from any Russia-tied election investigation and hampered the administration in fulfilling Mr. Trump’s agenda to “make America great again.”

Mr. Putin’s comments on Thursday about Russian hacking echoed those of Mr. Trump, who has dismissed accusations of Russian meddling in the election and said the person responsible for the attack on the Democratic National Committee “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”

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SOURCE: NY Times, Andrew Higgins

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