(Bloomberg) -- The U.K. believes the Kremlin was behind a hoax call to Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in which Russian pranksters pretended to be Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
The phone conversation, on May 8, failed to deliver the gaffes or indiscretions that the callers were hoping for, but British officials say it has the hallmarks of an attempt by President Vladimir Putin’s government to discredit Britain in the wake of the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
Two U.K. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Kremlin was trying to save face after the Skripal affair. Johnson’s deputy, Alan Duncan, originally took a call from the pranksters before they were passed on to the foreign secretary.
“If this was an attempt to ridicule us, it has totally backfired,” Duncan told Bloomberg News on Thursday. “All it has done is make the Russians look even sillier than we knew they were.”
This latest spat will further chafe diplomatic relations between the two countries, which are virtually frozen in the aftermath of the Salisbury attack, named after the English town where the nerve agent was unleashed.
That attack triggered a wave of expulsions from Russia’s embassies around the world, which in turn led to a concerted propaganda campaign by the Kremlin to discredit Britain’s account of the incident.
The Foreign Office in London said in an emailed statement that Johnson realized “it was a hoax, and ended the call.” It added: “The use of chemical weapons in Salisbury and Syria, and recent events in Armenia are serious matters. These childish actions show the lack of seriousness of the caller and those behind him.”
Details of the call were published in the pro-Kremlin tabloid newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda and those responsible expressed disappointment that Johnson had not made a fool of himself.
Johnson turned out to be “a smart diplomat, an intellectual,” Alexei Stolyarov, told the newspaper. It’s “probably the first time the person we talked to who was not a fool,” he said.
During the 18-minute call on May 8, Johnson repeated his public assertions that Britain doesn’t want a new Cold War, and is “absolutely sure” that Russia was behind the poisoning of the Skripals in March. “Almost 100 percent,” he said.
The transcript appears to confirm the Foreign Office line that Johnson realized he was being tricked and extracted himself from the conversation.
“Russians should know that the U.K. will counter them firmly and we will continue pressing on some of Putin’s circle oligarchs,” Johnson said, according to a transcript published by the newspaper. “We will look for ways to put more pressure on them in line with our legislation.”
Johnson said this week that Britain is keen to emulate U.S. President Donald Trump’s use of tough sanctions against wealthy Russians, though said it may have to wait until after Brexit when it will be free to act without the agreement of its EU counterparts.
The Foreign Secretary said he is paying close attention to Trump’s decision in April to target dozens of tycoons, companies and key allies of Putin. Those caught included Oleg Deripaska, the billionaire founder and majority shareholder of En+ Group Plc.
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