Vladimir Putin has given his broadest hint yet that Russia may have played a role in the hacking of western elections but emphatically denied that his government was involved.
Speaking at the St Petersburg economic forum, the Russian president acknowledged that it was “theoretically possible” that “patriotic” Moscow hackers might have interfered in foreign polls.
Asked on Thursday if Russia would meddle in Germany’s election later this year, Putin said: “If [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? Theoretically, that’s possible,” he said.
US intelligence agencies say Russian spies hacked into a wide range of institutions and agencies during the US election campaign. They have accused two Kremlin spy agencies – the GRU and the FSB – of hacking Democratic party emails and giving them to the website WikiLeaks.
The Kremlin’s goal was to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential chances and to help those of Donald Trump, the agencies said. WikiLeaks dumped the hacked emails online in two releases last July and October.
The Russian government has flatly denied the claim, which the FBI, CIA and NSA endorsed in January. But Putin’s comments for the first time acknowledge the possibility that the hackers involved could have come from Russia.
Putin compared hackers to free-spirited artists acting according to their moods, Reuters reported. He suggested cyber-attacks could be contrived to make them appear to have originated from Russia, when in reality they had come from somewhere else.
“Modern technologies allow that to be done quite easily,” he said.
He also said that he was personally convinced hackers were unable to materially change the outcome of an election, in America, Europe or anywhere else.
“On a state level we haven’t been involved in this [hacking]. We aren’t planning to be involved in it. Quite the opposite. We are trying to combat it inside our country,” said Putin.
US officials have said they tipped off French officials that Russian hackers had targeted the campaign of Emmanuel Macron before he won the second round of the presidential campaign.
But on Thursday, the head of France’s cybersecurity agency said it found no sign that the Russian hacking group APT28, also known as FancyBear, was behind a large-scale hack of emails and data from Macron’s campaign.
Guillaume Poupard, director general of the ANSSI agency, told the Associated Press on Thursday that the Macron campaign hack “was so generic and simple that it could have been practically anyone”.
ANSSI experts investigated the hack, which resulted in about 9GB of data being dumped on the internet less than 48 hours before the second round run-off between Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.
Poupard said the investigation had uncovered no trace of APT28, adding that the attack’s simplicity “means we can imagine it was a person who did this alone. They could be in any country”.
In January a dossier by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele alleged that the Trump campaign and the Kremlin had jointly paid the hackers who targeted Democratic party workers in a series of spearphishing emails. Trump has dismissed the claim as “fake news” and Steele as a “failed spy”.
The FBI and four House and Senate committees are actively investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. A special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, has been appointed after Trump sacked the FBI director James Comey last month. Comey is due to testify before the Senate intelligence committee next week.
Speaking on Thursday, Putin praised Trump as a “straightforward, frank person” who had brought to the job a “fresh set of eyes”. He complained of a political climate of “Russo-phobic hysteria” that made it “somewhat inconvenient to work with one another or even to talk.”
He suggested that bilateral US-Russia relations would eventually get better, predicting “this will end, sooner or later”. He added: “We are patient, we know how to wait and we will wait.”