Russian pranksters discuss Putin and Skripal in call with Boris Johnson
The duo released audio of the call, which they said took place last week, in which one of them pretended to be Nikol Pashinyan, the recently appointed prime minister of Armenia.
In the audio, the voice claiming to be Pashinyan speaks English with a Russian accent. He asks for advice on how to deal with Vladimir Putin, and for information about Britain’s response to the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury.
The FCO confirmed in a statement that it was Johnson on the call.
“We will continue to tighten the squeeze on some of the oligarchs who surround Putin,” said Johnson to the man he believed to be the Armenian PM.
Johnson said this had proved the most effective way of dealing with the threat posed by Russia, saying “you throw a stone in Kensington and you’ll get an oligarch”.
A senior UK diplomatic source told the Guardian: “This seems to be the latest desperate attempt by the Kremlin to save face after it was internationally shamed in the wake of Skripal attack.
“Boris rumbled them pretty quickly and ended the call. It is tragic to see a major international power reduced to failed pranks you would usually only see on Trigger Happy TV”.
Stolyarov told the Guardian he was impersonating Pashinyan on the call with Johnson, and said he had also spoken to the Europe minister, Sir Alan Duncan, prior to the call with Johnson.
Stolyarov and Kuznetsov have previously denied links with the Russian intelligence services, but their calls have an uncanny habit of chiming with Kremlin talking points. The fact they have been so successful at placing calls to high-level politicians across the globe also suggests they have access to special communications technology or help with placing calls.
In the call with Johnson, Stolyarov raised the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury, the use of chemical weapons in Syria and sought advice on dealing with Putin. In his responses, Johnson mainly struck a similar tone to his public pronouncements on the issues, though as the call went on he sounded increasingly bemused by the line of questioning.
At the start of the call, the foreign secretary jovially congratulated his interlocutor on his recent appointment as Armenian prime minister, and when pressed on whether he was certain Russia was behind the Salisbury attack said “we’re almost 100% sure” and offered to share further, non-public evidence.
“If I have a message to Putin, it’s that we don’t want a cold war but we do want to see an improvement in the way Russia behaves,” he said.
Johnson asked several times for clarification when towards the end of the call he was told by the fake Pashinyan that during a meeting with Putin, the Russian president had told him he was financially supporting the UK Labour party.
Shortly afterwards, it appears the call was cut off abruptly from the UK side, possibly after the penny finally dropped that the voice on the other end of the line was not that of Pashinyan.
“The Foreign Secretary realised it was a hoax, and ended the call,” the FCO said in a statement. “We checked it out and knew immediately it was a prank call. The use of chemical weapons in Salisbury and Syria, and recent events in Armenia are serious matters. These childish actions show the lack of seriousness of the caller and those behind him.”