Putin’s Russia blamed by No 10 for hoax calls targeting Johnson’s Cabinet
By David Hughes, PA Political Editor
The UK has publicly blamed Vladimir Putin’s Russia for hoax calls targeting British ministers in the hope of securing sensitive or embarrassing information.
Home Secretary Priti Patel and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace both spoke to imposters posing as the Ukrainian prime minister, while an unsuccessful attempt was also made to target Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries.
Mr Wallace said at the time of the incident last week he believed Russia was to blame and Downing Street has now publicly pointed the finger at the Kremlin.
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.”
Senior Government sources fear the Russians may attempt to doctor footage obtained in the calls in an attempt to embarrass the UK.
Mr Wallace publicly acknowledged he had been targeted shortly after his call on Thursday in an attempt to get ahead of any attempt by Moscow to circulate footage from it.
He also launched a cross-Whitehall investigation to understand how he ended up on a video call with a hoaxer pretending to be Ukrainian prime minister Denys Shmyhal.
Boris Johnson is due to discuss the war in Ukraine with US President Joe Biden and counterparts from other allies later on Monday ahead of a summit meeting of Nato leaders on Thursday.
In Ukraine, officials rejected a Russian demand for the port city of Mariupol to surrender as the bombardment of population centres across the country continued.
In the capital Kyiv a shopping centre was hit on Sunday, killing eight people, while ammonia leaked from a chemical plant in north-eastern Ukraine after it was shelled.
According to the latest MoD assessment, the Russian advance on Kyiv remains stalled in the face of determined Ukrainian resistance, with the bulk of Moscow’s forces still more than 25km (15 miles) from the centre.
Nevertheless, analysts believe the capital is still the Kremlin’s main military objective, although it is thought the Russians will try to force it into submission through encirclement rather than attempting a direct assault.
The UN’s refugee agency said around 3.5 million people had fled Ukraine since the February 24 invasion while millions more are still in the country but have been forced out of their homes.
Britain could welcome hundreds of thousands of those fleeing the fighting in Ukraine in the coming weeks, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said.
After the Government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme opened at the weekend, Mr Javid said those arriving in the UK would get all the support they needed.
He defended Ms Patel’s insistence that security checks are needed on refugees from the war to prevent Russian spies infiltrating the country.
Speaking at the Conservative spring forum in Blackpool at the weekend, Ms Patel said it was “naive” to assume that just because most people arriving in the UK were women and children there could not be Kremlin agents among them.
Mr Javid said that while any checks should be “proportionate” the Salisbury nerve agent attack in 2018 underlined the need to be vigilant.
“We saw in our country Russian agents came here with a deadly nerve agent, a chemical weapon, and they used it in Salisbury. We know it killed people and Russia was directly responsible for that,” he told Sky News.
“They infiltrated our country with agents, with a chemical weapon, and used it and so it is right there are some level of security checks. We also know that extremists and extremist organisations operate in that region.”
Some 10,200 visas have been issued under the Ukraine family scheme as of 4pm on Sunday, the Home Office said.
A total of 31,500 applications have been submitted so far, according to provisional data published on the department’s website.
Around 150,000 people have expressed in an interested in hosting refugees through the Homes for Ukraine programme.
“I’m pleased that we are supporting Ukraine in every single way that we can, whether that’s military aid, humanitarian aid, or indeed providing sanctuary for those that are fleeing Ukraine,” Mr Javid told LBC.
“I expect that we will see hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians arrive here in the UK, and they will get all the support that they need.”