The Kremlin is behind bogus calls to two UK cabinet ministers, Downing Street says

The Kremlin was behind fake phone calls made to two British cabinet ministers to spread disinformation and distract from Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, Downing Street said on Monday.

Defense Secretary Ben Wallace and Home Secretary Priti Patel both spoke to scammers posing as Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal last week.

Government officials fear Moscow may now release manipulated recordings of the calls to spread propaganda and embarrass the British government.

“The Russian state was responsible for the bogus phone calls made to UK ministers last week,” Downing Street told reporters on Monday.

“This is standard practice for Russian information operations, and disinformation is a tactic straight out of the Kremlin’s playbook to try to distract from their illegal activities in Ukraine and the human rights abuses being committed there,” added a spokesman.

“We are seeing a series of diversionary stories and outright lies from the Kremlin reflecting [President Vladimir] Putin’s desperation as he tries to hide the extent of the conflict and Russia’s failures on the battlefield.”

Wallace last week launched a Whitehall inquiry into how the callers got through to such senior ministers, and a separate review will aim to bolster security.

The scammer spoke to Wallace via a Microsoft Teams video call last week after an email was allegedly forwarded to the Ministry of Defense from the Ukrainian embassy in London, officials said. It had apparently initially been sent to another department in Whitehall.

Denys Shmyhal, Prime Minister of Ukraine

The scammers pretended to be Denys Shmyhal, pictured, Prime Minister of Ukraine © Leszek Szymanski/EPA

Referring to last week’s incident, the defense minister tweeted: “No amount of Russian disinformation, distortion and dirty tricks can distract from Russia’s human rights abuses and illegal invasion of Ukraine. A desperate attempt.”

Patel also replied: “It happened to me earlier this week too. A pathetic attempt to divide us in such difficult times. We stand by Ukraine”.

In 2018, two well-known Russian pranksters had an 18-minute phone call with then-British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson after one posed as Prime Minister of Armenia.

The government said at the time Johnson was targeted after Moscow was “internationally shamed” by the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury. The Kremlin is behind bogus calls to two UK cabinet ministers, Downing Street says

Adam Bradshaw

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