MOSCOW •Shifting from his previous blanket denials, President Vladimir Putin of Russia has suggested that "patriotically minded" private Russian hackers could have been involved in cyber attacks last year that meddled in the United States presidential election.
While he continued to deny any state role in the hacking, his comments to reporters in Russia departed from the Kremlin's previous position: that it played no role whatsoever in the hacking of the US Democratic National Committee.
Asked about suspicions that Russia might try to interfere in upcoming 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 on how they feel "when they wake up in the morning".
Any such attacks, he added, could not alter the results 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," he said, apparently a reference to former Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
The Kremlin took a dim view of Mrs Clinton, considering her far less friendly towards Russia than Mr Donald Trump would be because of her blunt criticism of Mr Putin and his policies in Syria and elsewhere.
Mr Putin's remarks opened room for verbal manoeuvring by Moscow - and also by President Trump - amid multiple investigations in the United States into Russian meddling.
Perhaps worried that, as the investigations make headway, evidence will show the Russian state or at least Russians were clearly involved in the hacking, Mr Putin seemed to be setting up a pre-emptive line of defence, 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.