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Putin denies a Russian state role in U.S. election, but says 'patriotic' hackers may have mounted attacks

Putin denies a Russian state role in U.S. election, but says 'patriotic' hackers may have mounted attacks
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Feb. 6. (Alexei Nikolsky / Associated Press)

After months of categorically denying Russian involvement in cyberattacks during last year's U.S. presidential election, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that although the Kremlin has never used state-sponsored cyberattacks to meddle in other countries' elections, some "patriotically minded" volunteer hackers may have acted on their own to defend Russian interests.

"Hackers can be anywhere and pop out from anywhere in the world," Putin said in an address to Russian and foreign media during the opening day of an annual economic forum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

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The Russian president compared hackers to artists who can act creatively, particularly when they are motivated by international relations and in the defense of Russia's interests.

"If they woke up today, read that there is something happening in interstate relations," he said. "If they are patriotic, they start contributing, as they see it, in the fight against those who do not speak well about Russia."

Putin's comments are a departure from the strong denials from what the Kremlin has been saying for months since the United States intelligence community accused Russia of orchestrating the hacking of the Democratic National Convention's emails, a move that was seen as aiding the election of Donald Trump.

While reiterating that Russia was not conducting cyberattacks "on the state level," Putin's suggestion that individual freelance Russian hackers could be operating on their own sounded similar to statements he made in 2014, when he first denied the presence of Russian troops in Crimea.

Then, months after the annexation of Crimea, Russia said in a statement that the Kremlin had in fact sent troops in to the Black Sea peninsula to protect Russian interests.

Like President Trump, Putin has dismissed media reports accusing the Trump administration of colluding with Russia to influence the U.S. election as "fake news."

On Thursday, he blamed a growing "anti-Russian" campaign in the media that he said was rooted in the West's goal of monopolizing power and preventing Russia from emerging on the world stage as a global player. Such "Russophobia" was counterproductive, Putin said.

Putin said the campaign had gone so far as to place Russia on the same threat level as Islamic State.

"We see, let's say, what is happening in the United States. This anti-Russian campaign, Russophobia continues," Putin said. "How will the situation develop? We do not know. It does not depend on us. We are not the initiators of this process."

Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has tried to assert Russia as an emerging power and himself as a global leader. At home, his popularity remains high even as the economy continues to struggle under the weight of low global oil prices and economic sanctions placed on the Kremlin after the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

"Some time ago, our partners in individual countries or groups of countries began to make attempts to contain Russia, to restrain its legitimate desire to safeguard its national interests by undertaking any actions that are not within the framework of international law, including economic restrictions," he said.

Such sanctions have had "zero effect," Putin said.

Russia has no choice but to build up its military defense systems in the Pacific region in response to the challenge of America's deployment of the antimissile system to South Korea to counter a North Korean missile threat, and to Washington's plans to improve a launch site for antiballistic missiles in Ft. Greely, Alaska, he said.

"Should we just stand idly by and watch this? Of course not," Putin said. "We are thinking about how to respond to these challenges."

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Trump-Putin Meeting

By most accounts, the Kremlin was initially positive about Trump's victory in November over Hillary Clinton, whom Putin sees as promoting an anti-Russia agenda. But Trump has yet to meet with the Russian president face-to-face, and the White House stance on Russia remains unclear despite campaign rhetoric from the Trump campaign that praised Putin's leadership.

Putin said Thursday that Russia was patiently waiting for the "anti-Russian hysteria in the U.S." to subside before any productive relationship could be established between Washington and Moscow.

The two presidents are expected to meet for the first time during a Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, next month.

"Of course, we are ready for the dialogue with the U.S. president, and we don't know how these relations will evolve considering in the U.S. there is a continuing fight that doesn't allow them to build relations," Putin said. "When it comes to our friendship with Donald Trump, how can you be friends with a person you don't know?"

Until a personal meeting happens, Putin said, he can't predict the nature of their relations.

"This is a person with a fresh view of things, even if anyone likes it or not. But it brings certain benefits," he said.

Some analysts say the Kremlin is more concerned about the scandal's effect on the U.S. audience than its statements have let on.

"When faced with uncertainty, the Kremlin frequently takes a default position with that kind of uncertainty in the form of a 'wait and see' rather than to take a positive position," said Robert Legvold, a professor at Columbia University and an expert on foreign policy in the post-Soviet states.

"If things get cloudy and there's not real progress, the Russian position of 'wait and see' will mean that nothing will happen when it comes to improving U.S.-Russian relations," Legvold said.

For the Kremlin, a presidential face-to-face will hold more weight. What comes out of that meeting could be the first step in setting the agenda for U.S.-Russian relations.

"Tactically, I think there is a very intensive buildup to their personal meeting," said Vladimir Milov, a liberal politician and former deputy energy minister. "There are fair chances that the meeting will result in establishing a strong, very warm and direct contact between Trump and Putin, and with very strong strategic implications."

For one thing, the two leaders may find a lot of personal common ground and similarities and will probably get along. "They understand each other; I mean they have the same language, the same body language," Milov said.

Despite frustrations with the uncertainties of the White House strategy on Russia and the deepening election-meddling investigations, many believe Putin is sincere when he says he remains patient with Trump.

In what could be a slight boost to Russia's struggling economy, Russia last month agreed with OPEC to increase oil prices. This could satisfy Russia's domestic economic woes and buy Putin more time to wait for Trump to emerge from the investigations.

"Putin is exceptionally good at recruitment skills. This is what they taught him at the KGB school," Milov said. "He will look him in the eye, show him his soul, once again as he did with [President George W.] Bush, and say, 'Donald, I'm 100% on your side. I'm your guy.'"

"From then on, whatever happens will be determined also by Trump, who I believe was inclined to make a grand bargain with Putin from Day One," Milov said.

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UPDATES:

11:50 a.m.: This article was updated with additional statements from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

8:40 a.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 4:55 a.m.

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