London (AFP) – British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson discussed dealing with Moscow in an 18-minute phone call with Russian pranksters impersonating the prime minister of Armenia in a recording posted online Thursday and confirmed by the foreign ministry as genuine.
During the hoax, which purportedly occurred last week, Johnson congratulates the caller — whom he thinks is new Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan — before promptly turning to Britain’s frayed relations with Russia.
“We have to stand firm against them though I appreciate that your geography dictates a balancing act,” Johnson said, offering “support and encouragement” and an invitation to visit the UK.
“It’s very important, I think, prime minister that we don’t have a new Cold War,” he added on the call, advising “determination and firmness” in dealing with Moscow.
“We will continue to tighten the squeeze on some of the oligarchs who surround Putin,” he said, adding Britain would seek new sanctions against key figures around the Russian president.
When the Pashinyan imitator noted that there were a lot of Russian oligarchs in Britain, Johnson agreed: “You throw a stone in Kensington and you’ll hit an oligarch.
He added: “But some of them are close to Putin and some of them aren’t.”
A Foreign Office spokesperson said staff “checked it out and knew immediately it was a prank call”.
“The Foreign Secretary realised it was a hoax, and ended the call,” it added in a statement.
In the audio recording posted on YouTube, Johnson appeared to hang up following 18 minutes of conversation, after growing suspicious of the caller’s claims Putin was funding British opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The hoax appears to have been staged by Vladimir “Vovan” Kuznetsov and Alexei “Lexus” Stolyarov, a pair of pranksters known as “Vovan and Lexus”.
The duo have made a habit of fooling politicians and pop stars into fake phone calls, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, US Senator John McCain and Elton John.
Their antics have mostly targeted Russia’s foes, leading to accusations they are working on the orders of the Kremlin or the nation’s security service, the FSB, which they both have denied.
During the latest call, Johnson is questioned about the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury in March.
Asked about British confidence in their assessment that Putin was behind the assassination attempt, Johnson said: “We’re, like, almost 100 percent sure.”
The Foreign Office spokesperson said: “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.”