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Suspected Russians are prank calling Washington think tanks

Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny makes a heart gesture during a hearing at a Russian court. (Moscow City Court Press Office/Tass via ZUMA Press/TNS)
April 29, 2021

In a Wednesday op-ed for the Washington Post, two members of the Atlantic Council described being emailed by someone impersonating Leonid Volkov, the chief of staff to imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

Melinda Haring, the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. and Damon Wilson, the Washington foriegn policy think tank’s executive vice president, described nearly being convinced by a suspected Russian prankster impersonating Volkov.

“The email was well-written and sympathetic,” the pair wrote in the op-ed published Wednesday. “It praised our work and requested an on-camera meeting with the top three executives at our organization, one of Washington’s leading think tanks. But the message was fake. The people who sent it were trying to lure us into a potentially sensitive or even embarrassing online conversation.”

The email to the Atlantic Council is not the first time a major Washington think tanks have been enticed by fake messages of support. The authors described these email attempts to set up embarrassing prank calls as spear-phishing attempts, a cybersecurity term used to describe a hacking technique to either get targets to open emails they think they can trust in order to infect targets with malware or get them to surrender privileged information.

Haring and Wilson described being wary of fake attempts to set up a prank call after another think tank was contacted in March by someone pretending to be exiled Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

“Unfortunately, the person claiming to represent Tikhanovskaya turned out to be a troll — which the organization realized only in the middle of the recorded meeting,” Haring and Wilson wrote.

The pair of Atlantic Council members took the warning from the other group’s encounter and when they were contacted by someone claiming to be Volkov, they contacted Volkov through other means to check whether he really message. “He had not. With that confirmed, we warned our colleagues in other organizations, some of whom had received the same note on the same day.”

The Atlantic Council authors wrote that in their efforts to determine who was behind the prank setup, all evidence pointed to an effort from Moscow. The pair wrote that the attempt might have been an effort

Another western policy organization, Amnesty International, was less fortunate in a February encounter with the well-known Russian prank callers Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexei Stolyarov, known as Vovan and Lexus. Earlier in February, Amnesty International decided to strip Navalny of his “prisoner of conscience” status for past comments they described as “racist.” Amnesty uses “prisoner of conscience” status to describe those imprisoned for political or religious beliefs. Following Amnesty’s decision, the Russian pranksters impersonated Volkov to ask what Navalny could do to have his status as a “prisoner of conscience” reinstated.

During that call, the caller impersonating Volkov told Amnesty International members that on Twitter, “I have wrote that you have ate a lot of shit” and called Amnesty International a “prostitutional organization.” During the call, Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty’s vice president of Europe and Central Asia, also said, “We are conscious that what happened has done a lot of damage and when you were angry you were entirely justified.”

Following the February call, Julie Verhaar, Amnesty’s acting general secretary tweeted thanks to the real Volkov for the call. Verhaar deleted that tweet after the real Volkov responded, “Hmm, Amnesty’s general secretary just thanked me for a constructive, direct conversation. But not only I do not know her and have never spoken to her, I wouldn’t be surprised if she spoke to ‘prankster Vovan’; I wouldn’t be surprised if they make decisions based on such messages.”

The Russian pranksters known as Vovan and Lexus have targeted numerous other organizations as well as U.S. lawmakers, allegedly including the late Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and the California Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff who at the time was the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee and is now its chairman. During the 2018 call with Schiff, the Russian pranksters claimed they were Andriy Parubiy, the chairman of the Ukrainian Parliament, and offered Schiff nude photos of then-President Donald Trump as part to aid his efforts to investigate allegations of collusion between Trump and Russia in the 2016 election.

In their Wednesday op-ed, Haring and Wilson wrote that the latest efforts to reach U.S. think tanks may go beyond mere prank call efforts.

“The ruse may have come from more official quarters,” the Atlantic Council authors wrote of their latest encounter. “The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office named the Atlantic Council an undesirable organization in 2019, and we are often the target of cyberattacks, mostly designed to gain information about our staff, our work and our engagements.”

The authors further wrote, “Think tanks and nongovernmental organizations are private and independent, but foreign governments and their supporters don’t necessarily see it that way. Many senior fellows previously worked in high-level positions at the White House, State Department and Pentagon, and remain in close contact with policymakers. Moscow views nongovernmental organizations as seditious and responsible for organizing street protests (even though that isn’t even remotely part of our job description).”

Indeed, as Russia retaliated to sanctions that the Biden administration earlier this month, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Russia would “terminate the activities” in Russia of U.S. funds and non-governmental organizations that are supported by the State Department and other U.S. government agencies.