VILNIUS – A person who convincingly pretended to be Leonid Volkov, the Lithuanian-based chief of staff to Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader imprisoned in Russia, carried out provocative information attack against Baltic states and Ukrainian politicians, Zygimantas Pavilionis, chairman of the Lithuanian Seimas Committee on Foreign Affairs, confirmed it to BNS on Thursday.
Earlier in the day, Lithuania's Foreign Ministry issued a statement that "during the past few weeks, information attacks were carried out against Estonian, Lithuanian, and Latvian politicians".
"These attacks were meant to spread false information, discredit Russian opposition and undermine Baltic politicians’ support for it," the ministry said,
PAVILONIS: THE IMPOSTER IMITATED VOLKOV'S FACE
Pavilionis told BNS the imposter actively asked him for mediation assistance to get in contact with high-ranking US politicians. In his words, the person used the so-called deepfake technology that allows imitating another person's face during a video call or recording and contacted him a month ago and asked for a possibility to attend the CFA meeting. But he was not allowed to attend due to suspicions of deceit.
Pavilionis also told BNS the same person was suspected to have managed to convince Latvian, Estonian and Ukrainian lawmakers that he was Volkov and through this deceit he tried to contact high-ranking UK, Canadian politicians, Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, international organizations.
"He did not join the committee. Yes, a person who introduced himself as Volkov, called me and we had an individual conversation. We (with an assistant – BNS) briefly saw his face and the conversation was about the fact that, taking my ties with the US Congress into account, especially as Robert Menendez, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was seen at my Kalinauskas Conference, that person who pretended to be Volkov asked me very much to connect him with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to hold certain hearings," Pavilionis told BNS.
The politician said the request was suspicious, therefore, he asked that person to send detailed explanations by email but did not forward the letter to US representatives.
PROVOCATION CAME TO LIGHT AT UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT
"That's how everything ended. But I later learnt from colleagues in Latvia and Estonia those meetings with members of the Foreign Affairs Committees took place there. Then, when we started noticing that it’s an imposter, he also talked to members of the Ukrainian committee and started openly mocking them during the conversation. We check information with the real Volkov and it turned out it was not a real person," Pavilionis said.
He said the person who pretended to be Navalny's representatives only briefly showed his face during the video call and then turned the camera off, citing technical issues. But he talked to Latvian, Estonian and Ukrainian lawmakers with his camera on and managed to convincingly imitate Volkov, including his voice.
"We then realized the deepfake technology could have been used when a photo is placed on a live face and he speaks. These are really high-level technologies and they have been used many times, even during President Obama's election time when various words used to be put on his face. When he got the whole picture after we found everything out with various services and others, we realized there had been many calls like that, including those to the OSCE, the Council of Europe, to Josep Borrell, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Canadian prime minister," Pavilionis said.
He said he warned Latvian and Estonian colleagues that they "talked to someone else" but they had already issued press releases about the meetings.
"It shows that we need to be vigilant about the fact that the Kremlin is using top-level technologies. Especially as we are in that "online" age, aware that those technologies are powerful and definitely not everyone can use them, and we just need to be very careful and check. Thank God, we have people who did that quickly and we slowed that operation slightly, and we have asked Volkov himself to say that publicly," Pavilionis said.
He plans to hold a joint remote meeting of the real Volkov and representatives of the Baltic committees who, he says, "still hardly believe that this happened to them".
LATVIAN REP: IT'S A PAINFUL LESSON
In a Facebook post on Thursday, Rihards Kols, chairman of the Latvian Saeima's Foreign Affairs Committee, also said that following initial conversations, without any suspicion, a video call involving the imposter and committer members took place on March 23 and the person "thanked Latvia for their support and strict position on EU sanctions" and stressed that international pressure is important to release Navalny and other political prisoners.
Kols said "Volkov's" fairly brief appearance on the committee seemed suspicious, and the deceit became clear after the imposter attend a meeting of Ukraine's Foreign Affairs Committee where he moved on to open provocations.
"Quite a painful lesson, but perhaps we can also say thanks to this fake Volkov for this lesson for us and Lithuanian and Estonian colleagues," the Latvian represented said.
VOLKOV CALLS THE OPERATION SCOPE "IMPRESSIVE"
Volkov also posted about this provocation on Facebook on Thursday, calling it "an impressive scale of operations".
He also believes well-known online pranksters" Lexus and Vovan" were behind it.
"The adventures of Lexus and Vovan continue. This time they spoke with the chairmen of the parliamentary committee of all three Baltic states on my behalf and Tom Tugendhat (British MP – BNS), their British colleague. An impressive scale of operations!" Volkov wrote. "But, the most interesting thing is "my" face during the video call with the Baltic parliamentarians. I think this is a real image and somehow they managed to use it during a Zoom call? Hello, the era of deepfakes..."