The Kremlin was behind hoax telephone calls directed at two UK cabinet ministers in a bid to spread disinformation and distract from Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, Downing Street said on Monday.

Ben Wallace, defence secretary, and Priti Patel, home secretary, both spoke last week to hoaxers posing as the Ukrainian prime minister, Denys Shmyhal.

Government officials fear Moscow could now release doctored recordings of the calls in a bid to spread propaganda and embarrass the UK government.

“The Russian state was responsible for the hoax telephone 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 from the Kremlin playbook to try to distract from their illegal activities in Ukraine and the human rights abuses being committed there,” a spokesperson added.

“We are seeing a string of distraction stories and outright lies from the Kremlin, reflecting [President Vladimir] Putin’s desperation as he seeks to hide the scale of the conflict and Russia’s failings on the battlefield.”

Wallace last week launched a Whitehall investigation to determine how the callers were able to get through to such high-ranking ministers and a separate review will look to strengthen security.

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

Denys Shmyhal, Ukraine’s prime minister
The hoaxers purported to be Denys Shmyhal, pictured, Ukraine’s prime minister © Leszek Szymanski/EPA

Recalling the incident last week, the defence secretary wrote on Twitter: “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 responded: “This also happened to me earlier this week. Pathetic attempt at such difficult times to divide us. We stand with Ukraine”.

In 2018, two well-known Russian pranksters enjoyed an 18-minute phone call with the then UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, after one posed as the prime minister of Armenia.

The government said then that Johnson had been targeted after Moscow was “internationally shamed” by the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury.

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