Two MPs said they got calls from “imposters” pretending to be Ukrainian lawmakers.
As the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine spreads the fog of war across Eastern Europe, the British government has opened an official inquiry into a new front in the battle for information superiority: Who’s been prank calling government ministers, and could they please leave them alone?
In the past week, both U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace and Home Secretary Priti Patel said they’d received calls from people claiming to be high-ranking Ukrainian officials. In Wallace’s case, the caller said he was Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, and Wallace said he grew suspicious and hung up after the caller “posed several misleading questions.” (I can only assume it was stuff like “do you have Prince Albert in a can?” and “is your refrigerator running?” among other mainstays of the prank call genre.)
“This is standard practice for Russian information operations, and disinformation is a tactic straight from the Kremlin playbook to try and distract from the illegal activities in Ukraine and the human rights abuses being committed there,” a spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Monday, elevating the crank calls to the level of full-blown geopolitical crisis. “We are seeing a string of distraction stories and outright lies from the Kremlin, reflecting Putin’s desperation as he seeks to hide the scale of the conflict and Russia’s failings on the battlefield.”
Incredibly, whether Kremlin disinfo campaign or not, there is a long and proud history of Russians prank calling foreign dignitaries and pretending to be Ukrainian officials. In 2017, then-U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry was duped into chatting about American coal exports with Vladimir Krasnov and Alexei Stolyarov, infamous Russian prank artists who’d convinced Perry that they were actually his Ukrainian counterpart. The duo has pulled similar stunts with Polish officials and United States senators. They even got Johnson himself once, when he was then the U.K. foreign minister. At the time, the British government claimed the Russian government had been behind the call.
While the British government’s inquiry into the crank calls is still ongoing, a spokesperson cautioned that more hoaxes are likely yet to come.