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 it was "theoretically possible" that "patriotic" hackers could attack those who "speak negatively about Russia."
"At a government level, we are never engaged in this. That's the most important thing," Putin said at the televised meeting, which was held during Russia's annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. He added that hackers could 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 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, and AP