Russian President Vladimir Putin said he likes guys like Donald Trump who speak their mind and dangled the possibility that patriotic Russians could have been involved in hacking during foreign elections.

“He’s direct, open,” Putin told a small group of foreign journalists in St. Petersburg on Thursday. “He can’t be put in the same category as traditional politicians. I see great advantages because he’s a person with a fresh view.”

The praise comes amid deepening scrutiny of alleged Russian meddling in America’s democratic process on behalf of Trump, who’s dismissed the probes as a “witch hunt.” Fired FBI Director James Comey may testify in front of a Senate committee next week over whether the president urged him to drop the bureau’s investigation. The Senate panel also plans to hear from Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House aide.

While repeating past denials that the government in Moscow had anything to do with the cyberattacks on the campaign of Trump’s main challenger in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton, Putin said he couldn’t rule out involvement by non-state actors in Russia. He compared hackers to free-spirited “artists” who may be Russians who wake up one morning, see how their homeland is being maligned in the foreign press and decide to act on their own.

‘Patriotically Minded’

“If they’re patriotically minded, they start making their contribution,’’ he said.

Putin said one of the things he admires about Trump is that he’s not the sort of leader who needs advice, but the retired KGB colonel offered some anyway to the billionaire and other political novices: stand up to your bureaucrats.

“You need to have great internal courage, confidence in your own rightness,” said Putin, who’s widely expected to extend his 17-year rule in March polls.

Putin fielded questions from the media for about 90 minutes before meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He spoke on subjects ranging from Trump and global security to sanctions and the domestic economy.

July Meeting

Putin cautioned that it’s hard for him to form a proper impression of Trump because they’ve only ever talked by phone. The two heads of state are due to meet for the first time at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg in July.

“How can you be friends with someone you don’t know?’’ he said. “I don’t think he can call me a friend. We have never seen each other in person.’’

Putin said he’s hopeful that he and Trump can mend a relationship between their countries that’s descended into what many political analysts are calling a new Cold War, though he’s unsure how things will develop given “the ongoing political struggles” in Washington.

The Kremlin leader once more accused the West of seeking to monopolize power and prevent the emergence of multiple centers of global influence by countering his country’s efforts to assert itself on the world stage.

‘Anti-Russian Campaign’

“The multi-polar world is becoming more of a reality and the monopolists don’t like that,” said Putin, who’ll turn 65 this year. “This is happening in no small part because of Russia’s fight for its interests, its legitimate interests, I want to stress that.”

Putin warned that what he sees as an “anti-Russian campaign” hurts all sides. “I hope that it won’t go on for too long, that it won’t last forever, because the realization must come that it is counterproductive and harms everyone.”

On sanctions, Putin singled out Italy for praise, not only for being against the penalties imposed on Russia following the 2014 annexation of Crimea but also for opposing such measures in general as a brake on global growth.

The Kremlin leader said he’s confident Russia’s economy is recovering from its longest recession in two decades. He said his policymakers are working on a series of stimulus plans to further boost growth, citing special economic zones and investment projects. He also reiterated his commitment to a floating ruble exchange rate. He intends to say more about his plans for the economy in his annual pitch to international investors here in his hometown on Friday.

On Thursday evening, Putin plans to attend a reception with foreign guests, including the head of Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund, Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, the Hollywood agent who once represented Trump, Ari Emanuel, Societe Generale SA Chief Executive Officer Frederic Oudea, Bahraini Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa and Saudi Arabian Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih.