Russian President Vladimir Putin denied on Thursday that the Kremlin had ordered cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, during the 2016 election.
But he said that “patriotically minded” Russians, whom he compared to artists, might have taken it upon themselves “to fight against those who say bad things about Russia,” according to the New York Times, which was present at his news conference with Russian and foreign outlets in St. Petersburg on Thursday.
The statement is the closest Putin has come to acknowledging the view of US intelligence agencies that Russian hackers were behind the hacking campaigns targeting Democrats during last year’s election.
“We’re not doing this at the state level,” Putin said. But he implied that it would be patriotic for private Russian citizens to “start making contributions – which are right, from their point of view – to the fight against those who say bad things about Russia.”
Among those who have criticized Putin in the past is 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who questioned whether Russia’s 2011 elections were “free, fair, transparent” and called for a “full investigation” of the election’s irregularities while she was Secretary of State. Mass anti-government protests broke out in Russia shortly thereafter, which Putin has blamed largely on Clinton’s comments.
Clinton spearheaded a “reset” with Russia under President Barack Obama, but the administration’s attempts at repairing Washington’s relationship with the Kremlin went south after Russia annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Putin’s comments may also offer a window into the Kremlin’s practice of recruiting private citizens and criminal hackers to engage in cyberespionage – both for personal financial gain and to spy on targets ranging from Russian journalists to private-sector employees in the American financial and transportation sectors.
The Soufan Group, a strategic security firm that specializes in intelligence, law enforcement, and policy analysis, wrote earlier this year that while the targets of intelligence agencies and cyber criminal networks “are usually very different,” Russia has “increasingly blurred the lines between cyber-espionage and cyber crime in an unprecedented manner.”
Private hackers are not only a “source of talent,” but they also offer a “degree of separation and deniability between state organs and end users,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the political risk firm Eurasia Group.
“Cyber crime and state espionage go hand in hand in this system,” he added.