Vladimir Putin conceded on Thursday that maybe, just maybe, “patriotic” citizen-hackers from Russia could interfere in the democratic processes of other countries. A tacit acknowledgement of interference in the US election? An unsubtle mocking of the US following rescinded sanctions? Could be! Mostly, though, you can consider this just another page from Putin’s playbook of misdirection.
“Hackers are free people like artists,” Putin said at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. “If artists get up in the morning feeling good, all they do all day is paint.”
Hackers, he said, follow similar fits of inspiration. “If they are feeling patriotic they will start contributing, as they believe, to the justified fight against those speaking ill of Russia.”
Taken out of context, it seems about as close as a head of state can get to acknowledging that his country meddled in another nation’s election. Even in context, it at least broaches the possibility in a way that Putin hadn’t before. But what Putin really accomplished was sowing as much plausible deniability as possible. With just a few sentences, he provided a measure of cover for a Trump administration that remains unwilling to acknowledge Russia’s role, while simultaneously stoking the frenzy over Russia’s alleged involvement.
“Putin’s patriotic-hackers-out-of-bed-like-artists talk is purely political play, fodder for US media, sowing doubt—sharpening the wedge,” wrote Thomas Rid, a professor at King’s College London department of War Studies who has closely tracked Russia’s electoral hacking efforts.
It’s a rhetorical matryoshka doll, layering admissions inside denials inside distractions. And that’s the point.
Before tackling the specifics of what Putin did and didn’t say, one must first reiterate the broader reality. The security community, both public and private, almost unanimously agrees that Kremlin-backed hackers stole emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, then released them through WikiLeaks. Evidence points to similar Russian tactics in France and Germany. Russia vehemently denies this, as does President Donald Trump, but the list of people who believe Russia wasn’t involved all but stops there.
While Putin’s comments about patriotic hackers seem to indicate an admission of US interference, he offered it in response to a question about hypothetical hacking of the upcoming German presidential race. Putin also accompanied his denial with an intimation that Russia may have been set up. “At the government level, we never engage in this. This is what is most important,” he said. “I can image a scenario when somebody develops a chain of attacks in a manner that would show Russia as the source of these attacks. Modern technology allows that. It is very easy.”
Consider, though, that many Kremlin hacking efforts don’t occur “at the government level” to begin with. The government outsources such work to Russian citizens, including criminals. “They create this plausible deniability by using these proxies,” says Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who focuses on national security. “This is standard playbook, to use Russian citizens as cutouts to remove your responsibility.”
It could have been Russians, Putin says, but not Russia. In fact, it could have been anybody. Let confusion reign. All part of the plan.
While Putin didn’t address the US election directly, close observers still see a glimmer of an acknowledgement, even outright boasting. “He’s never going to do an outright state-sponsored admission because that could be seen as an act of war,” says Watts. “Now, he’s basically taking credit in a certain way that his country was involved in election meddling.”
That the comments come shortly after the Trump administration eased sanctions the Obama administration imposed by returning two compounds on US soil to Russian ownership, simply adds to the intrigue. “I also see it as him just laughing,” says Watts about the timing.
Others see even this muted level of acknowledgement as a worrisome sign that Russia will only increase its cyber campaigns abroad. “It seems to be that Russia has gotten a lot more blatant,” says Brandon Valeriano, an international conflict researcher at the Marine Corps University. “A lot more free. That’s a worrying change.”
Even so, don’t expect today’s remarks to generate much of a response from the international community. More than enough evidence already exists linking the US electoral hacks to the Kremlin. A wink and a dodge from Putin doesn’t cement anything that wasn’t already rock solid. “Russia’s doing the least they can because that’s all they can do,” says Valeriano. “They’re trying to be noticed.”
Like any tried and true playbook, so far it’s working.