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Downing Street Says Russian State Was Behind Hoax Calls To Three Cabinet Ministers

The hoaxer was put through to the defence secretary Ben Wallace and home secretary Priti Patel last week (Alamy)

3 min read

Downing Street has publicly blamed the Russian state for a number of hoax calls targeting Cabinet ministers including defence secretary Ben Wallace last week.

Three secretaries of state were contacted by an impostor pretending to be the Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, which the government has labelled as “disinformation” and “straight from the Kremlin playbook”.

They managed to get through to defence secretary Ben Wallace and home secretary Priti Patel, but culture secretary Nadine Dorries’ office did not put the call through.

Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson said today the Russian state was “responsible” for the hoaxes, the first time they had officially laid the blame at Vladimir Putin’s door.

Downing Street said this is an attempt to “distract from the illegal activities in Ukraine and the human rights abuses being comitted”.

It was a reflection of “Putin's desperation as he seeks to hide the scale of the conflict and Russia's failings on the battlefield”, the spokesperson added.

They said the government does "generally have strong protections in place to guard against this sort of thing", but an inquiry is now underway to discover how the hoaxer was put through by the various departments.

Johnson's spokesperson also said the incident was “an attempt to distract and spread misinformation”, and it is believed footage from the calls could be doctored and used in propaganda material by the Russians.

Last Thursday, Wallace tweeted that he had been the target of the hoax. He said the imposter claimed to be the Ukrainian prime minister and “posed several misleading questions”. He said that he terminated the call, which is understood to have lasted around 10 minutes over Microsoft Teams, after he become suspicious. 

"No amount of Russian disinformation, distortion and dirty tricks can distract from Russia's human rights abuses and illegal invasion of Ukraine,” he added. “A desperate attempt."

Patel said the same thing happened to her earlier in the week. “Pathetic attempt at such difficult times to divide us. We stand with Ukraine," she said. 

Dorries, the third cabinet minister targeted, was sent a similar request on Tuesday but it is understood her staff contacted the Foreign Office, who then got in touch with the Ukrainian embassy, where the ruse was uncovered and she never took the call.

Wallace’s colleague at the Ministry of Defence, the armed forces minister James Heappey, told LBC his boss was "pretty cross” after the incident.

"He, I think, was embarrassed that it had happened, and he has asked some pretty tough questions to the department about how it happened," he said.

Heappey said Wallace "instinctively understands threat”, and told the BBC: “Ben’s suspicions were aroused when somebody if he was who he said he was would have known full well that you don’t discuss military movements on Teams because the Russians are watching.

“Priti, like Ben, day in day out is dealing with matters of national security. When you deal with matters as sensitive as those great offices of state do, you get an instinctive feeling for what you should be saying on each means of communication.”

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