Interview: Russian pranksters influence world politics
“Hello, is this congresswoman Maxine Waters? Ukrainian PM Volodimir Groysman calling.” The two Russian pranksters have done it again; they posed as a foreign leader to expose the ignorance and the agenda of the target of their hoax, this time a Democrat Congresswoman. Earlier they managed to call Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan, who vowed he would never apologise for downing the Russian attack aircraft – which he eventually did. FreeWestMedia managed to meet the elusive duo and let them explain their motives and how they succeed with their stunts.
Published: February 22, 2017, 9:10 pm
Russian Vladimir “Vovan” Kuznetsov and Alexey “Lexus” Stolyarov may look like ordinary youngsters, but they manage time and again to gain access to world politics. In February, they released a recording where they called US congresswoman Maxine Waters (Democrat) pretending to be Ukrainian PM Volodimir Groysman. Waters, known for her anti-Russian stance, went on to reassure “Groysman” that she would do everything in her power to keep the sanctions against Russia in place, especially after hearing that Russia was “advancing in Korea” and already had “invaded Gabon” with their regular army.
The pranksters then went on to exploit Waters’s lack of geography knowledge even further, claiming that Russia had hacked the election system in the country of Limpopo – a fictitious state – completely reversing the outcome. The mastermind behind the alleged hacking was Putin himself with the help of two special advisers: Vovan and Lexus.
A seemingly overwhelmed Waters is then heard saying “Wow! I know the US is going to stand with you guys” in the face of “these invasions”.
Mikheil Saakashvili Revealed Secrets for 40 Minutes
The pranksters gained fame almost five years ago by skilfully performing a series of prank calls targeting Russian and even international celebrities. Vovan remembers that in 2015, they even got through to the renowned entertainer Sir Elton John, who was sure he was talking to President Putin. However, lately the duo have turned their attention to politicians:
– We spent the entire 2012 engaging in what you might call semi-political prank – then we had all those opposition rallies and riots in Russia, and that motivated us to take on political prank, says Vovan.
Lexus says he has always in fact preferred political pranks.
– Back in 2012, I noticed that the opposition in Russian politics resorted to different kinds of provocations that took unexpected forms. I thought: why not use such a format myself?
He started recording his first pranks featuring representatives of the “white-band movement”, the anti-Putin opposition in Russia, which he disliked.
In 2013 the Ukrainian crisis sparked “the new Cold war”. In April of 2014 Vovan and Lexus called the leaders of the Right Sector, a Ukrainian radical military formation. One of the leaders told the pranksters that the Right Sector trades in captured followers of Yanukovych, selling them as slaves or exchanging the captives for arms.
In the fall of 2014 the duo called the former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, posing as Arsen Avakov, the Minister of the Interior of Ukraine, and his deputy Anton Herashchenko. Saakashvili revealed confidential information for 40 minutes to the pranksters regarding American financial aid to Ukraine and shipping of military equipment, and even connected the call to US Senator McCain.
New Type of Investigative Journalism
Lexus says that they are not only patriots; what they are engaged in is an emerging new type of investigative journalism. Ukraine was the trigger for them.
– The post-Soviet space has never experienced such a catastrophe. Patriotism can be expressed in different ways. We try to make useful information accessible to people through our activity. We cannot call ourselves the warriors of the information war. It is not so much our perception as it is how the media view us. We have created a sort of a new format of journalism, a kind of chat-up. It is more entertaining than listening to some interview not different from a zillion of others. And we cannot be blamed for the idiocy that our personages display, he says.
In early February 2017 the pranksters managed to get through to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, posing as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wanting his country to join the military alliance. During their 40-minutes conversation, Stoltenberg explained that a membership was out of the question right now and that the issue was a misunderstanding.
Earlier, Poroshenko hade made an announcement that he intends to hold a referendum in Ukraine on joining NATO, but after the phone call was made public, the Ukrainian authorities made a statement that they had no plans for such a referendum in the near future.
– We prepare each prank by thinking things over; we do not simply chuckle and play tricks. It is a kind of journalistic research, only carried out with the help of a prank, Vovan explains.
Nadiya Savchenko Tricked to End Hunger Strike
The duo claim they are not shaken by a threat of personal sanctions against them that might be introduced by the EU or USA.
– Well, it seems we do not have bank accounts in Panama… This is not frightening. I do not think they will stoop so low, as we do not represent any state bodies, Vovan says.
– Everything is possible, Lexus remarks.
The pranksters say that Ukraine is even trying to charge them with a criminal offence. In March of 2016, Vovan and Lexus wrote a letter to Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian convict in Russia, who was charged with having directed artillery fire that killed two Russian reporters. They made the letter to look like it had been sent on behalf of Ukrainian President Poroshenko, urging her to give up her hunger strike. She was handed the letter by her lawyers on March 10, a day after her triumphant speech at the court hearings. In the letter, the head of state once more offered support to the Hero of Ukraine – even a ministerial position – and begged her to spare herself and stop the hunger strike. The letter worked. Later on the same day, media trumpeted that Nadiya Savchenko terminated the hunger strike. In a couple of hours the joy was however replaced by shocked silence, broken only by someone’s stifled laughter… The President’s message turned out to be fake.
Erdogan: I Will Never Apologize to Putin
The pranksters did not expect their activity to have any global or historic consequences, but for example in November of 2015 they managed to gain evidence that the leadership of Crimean Tatar radicals were involved in terror acts in the Kherson Region of Ukraine, close to Crimea, blowing up high-power electrical transmission towers.
– Well, some people tell us that we are writing history. We just do what we do, what we can do well enough, and perhaps it is useful for society. At least, this Crimean story about the capture of a guy, who was delivering explosives to blow up the ETLs… The Crimean Tatars admitted having perpetrated the crime in their conversation with us. Thus, there are advantages, Vovan remembers.
One of Vovan and Lexus’s best known pranks is the call in February of 2016 to the Turkish President Erdogan, posing as the President and PM of Ukraine. Erdogan talked about his plans concerning Ukraine and said that he would never apologize to President Putin for the downed Russian bomber.
– There had been many instances, when we acquired information that under other circumstances would have never been made public. Take Erdogan, who said at first that he was not going to apologize; nevertheless, in several months’ time he did apologize. I think the recording was very important, as it kind of revealed his hypocrisy, says Lexus.
Easy to Tap Into Protected Channels
When asked to explain the mechanism of a prank, which one might think requires all kinds of equipment, the pranksters tell us that all they use is a laptop and normal communication channels, such as mobile phones and Skype.
– There is no such thing as protected channels. The people we target use ordinary stationary phones. There are no protected channels for connection, as some people claim. There are official phone numbers, and they are accessible, and everyone can get through via them. They exist, and the key issue is the knowledge of the number. We have got these numbers, Lexus says.
Vovan explains that the receiving side assumes that the caller uses the protected channel in his country, and they switch onto the protected connection in their country. They cannot check the channel you are using on your side.
– However, we speak about the countries that do not have close contacts. Those that do not have direct phone connections, says Lexus.
Vovan and Lexus are the Western media’s popular bugaboos, as the success of their pranks, the recording of which immediately go viral in social networks all over the world, is attributed to their links to Russian secret services.
– Western media see everything from their own enigmatic perspective, they like to present everything as the know-how of FSB, and not the work of ordinary people, Vovan says and laughs.
– They see Putin everywhere, Lexus adds.
– In fact, those, who dislike us, have two explanations. The first is that the victims of our pranks are also some parodists and that we did not call any real presidents. Nevertheless, as soon as there is some official reaction, or some other proof, at once another group of people is activated, who think we are FSB agents. All the rest are the people, who view us positively, and they constitute the majority, Lexus says.
This Is a Nightmare – Blame the FSB
Vovan and Lexus say that the reactions from the victims of their pranks could be wiser.
– There are ways to minimize the damage. For example, Erdogan had minimized it by the absence of reaction. I think that was clever. If Poroshenko had done the same, the prank probably would not have gone viral. What spokesman Tsegolko said was the best advertisement for our prank, says Lexus.
The spokesman of the President of Ukraine, Svyatoslav Tsegolko, wrote on his Facebook that the recording was edited, and the version, published by Vovan, did not contain the grudges that Poroshenko addressed to Russia and Putin. He also quoted those fragments of the conversation omitted by the prankster, and explained in what way Vovan managed to reach out to the President: “The investigation proved that the Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry workers were involved, unfortunately. They facilitated the call by providing the pranksters with contact numbers of the President’s office.”
Vovan tells us that Tsegolko himself became a victim of their prank.
– We called him on behalf of Feikin (Vovan intentionally distorts the name of Mark Faygin, Nadiya Savchenko’s lawyer) and asked: “What should we do about the fake letter to Savchenko, what should I tell the media?” He answered: “We are at the moment discussing it with Petr Alexeyevich. This is a nightmare.” I said: “Then I will blame the FSB for everything,” and he replied: “Yes, exactly, say the FSB is to blame”.
Both Vovan and Lexus laugh and say that those people see the FSB behind everything.
– If the FSB were so powerful in Ukraine, they could have captured Poroshenko, Avakov and the likes of them, instead of phoning them, says Lexus.
Vovan and Lexus claim that the people they call use one rhetoric publicly and an entirely different one behind the scenes.
– All politicians lie. Generally all their public statements are of a purely decorative character. In reality politics is dirty business. Hence, we have to get it all straight. One should not believe everything one hears… But our records one can trust, Lexus concludes.
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