Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Russian hackers might target those who criticize their country out of "patriotic" feelings, but insisted that the government has no involvement in such cyberattacks.
Putin's comments during a June 1 meeting with senior editors of international news agencies in St. Petersburg come amid the continuing fallout over what U.S. intelligence says was a Kremlin-directed hacking-and-propaganda campaign to influence last year's U.S. presidential election.
Responding to a question about concerns in Germany that Russian hackers could meddle in that country's upcoming federal elections, Putin said, "Hackers are free people. They are like artists. If they are in a good mood, they get up in the morning and begin painting their pictures.
"Hackers are the same. They wake up in the morning, they read about some developments in international affairs, and if they have a patriotic mindset, then they try to make their own contribution the way they consider right into the fight against those who have bad things to say about Russia," he added.
"We are not engaged in this on the state level and we are not going to. On the contrary, we are trying to fight against it inside the country," Putin said at the televised meeting, which was held during Russia's annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
The Russian president also said that "no hackers can influence any election campaign and that hackers can come "from any country in the world."
U.S. intelligence officials accuse Putin of ordering an "influence campaign" using hacking and propaganda in a bid to hurt Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who lost to President Donald Trump in the November 8 election.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied the charge.
Addressing the June 1 meeting, Putin asserted that "no hackers can fundamentally influence outcome of an election in another country."
He offered positive words about Trump, who has said he wants to improve ties with Moscow but whose administration has been dogged by FBI and congressional investigations into contacts between his associates and Russian officials.
Putin said that Trump, a wealthy businessman who had never previously held elected office, benefits from his lack of political experience.
"He has a fresh set of eyes," Putin said, calling his U.S. counterpart a "straightforward person and a frank person."
Putin also criticized what he said was "Russophobia" among countries seeking to isolate Russia -- a clear reference to U.S. and EU sanctions targeting Moscow over its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and backing of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
He claimed these punitive measures had "zero effect" and said he hoped they would be ended because they are "counterproductive" to all sides.
Putin also asserted that that Russia was being forced into bolstering its military presence in the Far East by what he said was a U.S. buildup on the Korean Peninsula.
He criticized the construction of elements of a U.S. antimissile system in South Korea and Alaska, saying it constituted a challenge to Moscow.
"This concerns us greatly, and we've said this repeatedly over the past 10 years," Putin said, referring to U.S. missile-defense plans. "It destroys the strategic balance in the world."
With reporting by Interfax, Reuters, Bloomberg, and AP