Vladimir Putin, who repeatedly has denied meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, suggested in a new interview that the massive cyber operation targeting the presidential vote might have been carried out by “Ukrainian, Tatars or Jews — but with Russian citizenship.”
The Russian leader pointed the finger at Jews and ethnic minorities in his country during an interview broadcast late Friday on NBC television, in which he frostily dismissed any knowledge of the cyber-intrusions into the American electoral system. But Putin added that he “couldn’t care less” if operatives from his country were, in fact, found to have been responsible for operation.
The Russian leader’s denials echo recurring remarks by Donald Trump, who repeatedly has discounted assertions even by his own intelligence agencies that Moscow was behind efforts to harm the election changes of his Democratic rival. U.S. spy officials for months have been convinced that Russia was behind clandestine efforts to sway American voters away from Democratic president nominee Hillary Clinton and to her Republican rival Donald Trump.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller who is overseeing a sweeping investigation into Russian efforts to affect the outcome of the election, last month issued sweeping indictments in which he laid out details of the elaborate Russian cyber-operation. Mueller’s indictment identified 13 Russians and a trio of Russian companies for leading a social media interference campaign across the United States.
The exhaustive 37-page charging sheet left little room for doubt that Moscow led the cyber hacking operation, but two two apparent doubters remain — Trump, the shock winner of the November 2016 vote, and Putin.
Espionage experts and Kremlinologists say however that the Russian leader would have to have given his approval for a cyber-operation as complex and extensive as the one that targeted the 2016 US presidential vote.
Putin told NBC interviewer Megan Kelly that even if the hackers had Russian nationality, there is no proof that the operation was directed by the Kremlin. “So what if they’re Russians?” he said. “They do not represent the interests of the Russian state.”