“Who are you looking at?”
“Who are you looking at?”

Vladimir Putin characterised Russian hackers as patriots who, tired of the public lashing Russia regularly gets in international forums, have decided to take up arms and defend it through cyberspace.

“Hackers are free-spirited people, like artists,” said the Russian premier.

“They read something that is happening in interstate relations, and if they're patriotically minded, they start making their contribution,” Putin told a crowd of journalists at an annual economic forum in the Konstantinovsky Palace.

Putin made the comment in response to a question about alleged Russian interference in recent European and American elections, all the while categorically denying that Russia had ever engaged in “state level” hacking. He added a bitter parting shot, saying that an American-led coalition of global ‘monopolists' are trying to stifle Russia's pursuit of its own interests.

Deniability has always been an important aspect of Russian employment of hackers. In 2007, when Estonia was subject to a massive DDoS attack which took out public services and private enterprises all over the country, fingers quickly pointed towards Russia, which predictably denied involvement. Two years later, responsibility was claimed by a group called Nashi, a nationalist youth organisation with ties to the Kremlin.

This distance from the Russian government is just close enough to send a clear, if unspoken message and just far enough to provide it with protection. The comments are “interesting, if unsurprising,” Ewan Lawson, a senior fellow for Military Influence at the Royal United Services Institute told SC Media UK. The challenge, says Lawson, “is in proving a link between the Kremlin or other Russian state institutions with these organisations particularly given that any direction would be most likely in the form of broad guidance rather than specific targeting.”

The comments come against a culture of heightened suspicion amongst western liberal democracies that their electoral processes are not safe from Russian interference. As the investigation into the Trump campaign's connections with Russia is reaching fever pitch, attention has rarely been so tightly focused on the possibility that democracies might be overturned by a few breaches.

Putin's comments, added Lawson, “probably reflect an expectation that the FBI will at some point be able to link some of the election activity to infrastructure in Russia so better to get your excuses in early.”