Russian President Vladimir Putin denied on Thursday that the Russian state had ever engaged in election hacking, but conceded it is theoretically possible some individual "patriotic" Russians could have mounted cyberattacks during the current strain between Russia and the West.
Speaking to foreign reporters at an economic forum in St. Petersburg, the Russian leader also said the “Russo-phobic hysteria” makes it “somewhat inconvenient to work with one another or even to talk.”
“It’s having an impact, and I’m afraid this is one of the goals of those who organize it are pursuing and they can fine-tune the public sentiments to their liking trying to establish an atmosphere that is going to prevent us from addressing common issues, say with regard to terrorism,” the Russian leader said.
As for President Trump, Putin said he views the new American leader as a "straight person and a frank person," Bloomberg news reports.
“He can’t be put in the same category as normal politicians. I see that as an advantage. He has a fresh set of eyes.’’
Putin noted that the the two leaders had only talked by phone and that it is difficult to form an opinion from a distance. Putin and Trump plan to meet for the first time at the G-20 summit in Hamburg in July.
“How can you be friends with someone you don’t know?’’ Putin said, according to Bloomberg. “I don’t think he can call me a friend. We have never seen each other in person.’’
As for the strains between Russia and the West, Putin predicted “this will end, sooner or later,” adding that “we are patient, we know how to wait and we will wait.”
He rejected charges by U.S. intelligence agencies, however, that Russia hacked into Democratic Party emails, helping Trump’s election victory.
“I’m deeply convinced that no hackers can radically influence another country’s election campaign,” he said. “No hackers can influence election campaigns in any country of Europe, Asia or America.”
He also emphasized that the Russian state had never engaged in such hacking, but acknowledged it is possible that tensions between Rusia and the West could have provoked some individuals to mount cyberattacks.
“If they have patriotic leanings, they may try to add their contribution to the fight against those who speak badly about Russia,” he said. “Theoretically it’s possible.”
In any case, Putin shrugged off Western economic restrictions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and over allegations of hacking, saying they have had “zero effect.” He predicted that the current strain in relations will ease, because “it’s counterproductive and harmful.”
Regarding pressing international issues, Putin complained about NATO encroaching on Russia.
"NATO bases are moving closer to our western borders and the infrastructure is moving closer, incidents are increasing and do we have simply to sit weak-willed and look at this? No, this will not be the case and we are responding accordingly. The same is taking place in the East," he said.
He also expressed concern over the U.S. placing anti-missile defenses in South Korea, ostensibly to counter threats from North Korea. He said this is "undermining the strategic balance in the world."
Putin said the U.S. will likely continue to build up its missile shield in the region even if North Korea agrees to curb its nuclear and missile programs. This is a challenge for us," the Russian leader said.
Regarding the Far East, Putin said Russia’s military deployments on a group of Pacific islands also claimed by Japan are driven by Kremlin concerns over the U.S. military buildup in the region.
The four islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the southern Kurils in Russia, were seized by the former Soviet Union at the end of the World War II, preventing the two countries from signing a peace treaty.
Contributing: Associated Press