Putin behind hoax calls targeting British MPs as he 'tries to hide battlefield failings'

21 March 2022, 13:00 | Updated: 21 March 2022, 14:03

The Russian state has been blamed for hoax telephone calls to ministers
The Russian state has been blamed for hoax telephone calls to ministers. Picture: Alamy

By Asher McShane

Russia is being blamed for a series of hoax calls which targeted three cabinet ministers last week.

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Unknown individuals launched a distraction campaign and managed to get through to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Home Secretary Priti Patel via the Microsoft Teams platform using a fake email.

An unsuccessful attempt was also made to get through to Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries.

Downing Street thinks the calls were an attempt to secure sensitive or embarrassing information.

The government has launched an inquiry, describing it as a tactic straight from the 'Kremlin playbook' to try to distract from their illegal activities in Ukraine.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Home Secretary Priti Patel said they had been targeted by calls from imposters last week while No 10 revealed an unsuccessful attempt was also made to contact Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries.

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The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "The Russian state was responsible for the hoax telephone calls made to UK ministers last week.

"This is standard practice for Russian information operations and disinformation is a tactic straight from the Kremlin playbook to try to distract from their illegal activities in Ukraine and the human rights abuses being committed there."

"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," the spokesman added.

Senior Government sources fear the Russians may attempt to doctor footage obtained in the calls in an attempt to embarrass the UK.

Mr Wallace had previously said he believed Russia was behind the incident but this is the first time the Government has directly blamed the Kremlin, with the MP initiating a cross-Whitehall review to tighten up security procedures.

The Secretary of State for Defence explained last week that an impostor, believed to be a Russian Spy, had managed to contact him on a Microsoft Teams calls.

After speaking to the imposter for several minutes, he ended the call after a string of strange questions raised suspicions.

The caller - who was posing in front of an Ukrainian flag - reportedly asked questions about the potential deployments of British warships to the Black Sea and the prospects of Ukraine dropping its ambition to join NATO.

Mr Wallace said the imposter "posed several misleading questions and after becoming suspicious I terminated the call."

Adding: "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."

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Today Ukrainian officials rejected a Russian demand that their forces in the besieged strategic port city of Mariupol lay down arms and raise white flags in exchange for safe passage out.

Russia has been barraging the encircled southern city on the Sea of Azov, hitting an art school sheltering some 400 people only hours before offering to open two corridors out of the city in return for the capitulation of its defenders, according to Ukrainian officials.

Fighting for Mariupol has continued to be intense, even as the Russian offensive in other areas has floundered to the point where Western governments and analysts see the broader conflict grinding into a war of attrition.

"There can be no talk of any surrender, laying down of arms," Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk told the news outlet Ukrainian Pravda. "We have already informed the Russian side about this."

Mariupol Mayor Piotr Andryushchenko also rejected the offer shortly after it was made, saying in a Facebook post he did not need to wait until the morning deadline to respond and cursing at the Russians, according to the news agency Interfax Ukraine.

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Russian Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev had offered two corridors - one heading east toward Russia and the other west to other parts of Ukraine. He did not say what action Russia planned to take if the offer was rejected.

The Russian Ministry of Defense said authorities in Mariupol could face a military tribunal if they sided with what it described as "bandits", the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported.

Previous bids to allow residents to evacuate Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities have failed or have been only partially successful, with bombardments continuing as civilians sought to flee.

Tearful evacuees from the devastated city have described how "battles took place over every street".

Ahead of the latest offer, a Russian air strike hit the school where some 400 civilians had been taking shelter and it was not clear how many casualties there were, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address early on Monday.

"They are under the rubble, and we don't know how many of them have survived," he said.

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The fall of Mariupol would allow Russian forces in southern and eastern Ukraine to link up.

But Western military analysts say that even if the surrounded city is taken, the troops battling a block at a time for control there may be too depleted to help secure Russian breakthroughs on other fronts.

Ukrainians "have not greeted Russian soldiers with a bunch of flowers", Mr Zelensky told CNN, but with "weapons in their hands".

Three weeks into the invasion, the two sides now seem to be trying to wear the other down, experts say, with bogged down Russian forces launching long-range missiles at cities and military bases as Ukrainian forces carry out hit-and-run attacks and seek to sever their supply lines.