An imposter used deepfake technology to impersonate an associate of Alexei Navalny and get access to Baltic MPs.
Žygimantas Pavilionis, chairman of the Lithuanian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was approached by someone pretending to be Leonid Volkov. While Pavilionis found the situation suspicious, parliamentarians from Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine seem to have been duped.
Earlier on Thursday, 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 that he was asked by the imposter to put him in touch with high-ranking US politicians.
The person used the so-called deepfake technology that allows imitating another person's face during a video call or recording. Pavilionis said he was contacted a month ago and asked for a possibility to attend a Foreign Affairs Committee meeting. He was not allowed to do it, however.
According to Pavilionis, the same person may have managed to convince Latvian, Estonian and Ukrainian lawmakers that he was Volkov and tried to contact high-ranking British and Canadian politicians, Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, and international organisations.
“He did not join the committee meeting. Yes, a person who introduced himself as Volkov called me and we had an individual conversation. We [with an assistant] briefly saw his face and the conversation was about [...] my ties with the US Congress, 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 to get him in touch him with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to hold certain hearings,” Pavilionis told BNS.
The Lithuanian MP found the request suspicious and therefore asked the 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 learned from colleagues in Latvia and Estonia that meetings with members of foreign affairs committees took place there. Then, when we started realising that it was an imposter, he also talked to members of the Ukrainian committee and started openly mocking them during the conversation. We checked 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 realised 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 campaign when various words used to be put in his mouth.
“We realized there had been many calls like that, including to the OSCE, the Council of Europe, to Josep Borrell, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the Canadian prime minister,” Pavilionis said.
He said he warned his Latvian and Estonian counterparts that they “talked with 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,” Pavilionis said.
He plans to hold a joint remote meeting with real Volkov and representatives of the Baltic committees who, he says, “can still hardly believe that this happened to them”.
A painful lesson
In a Facebook post on Thursday, Rihards Kols, chairman of the Latvian Saeima's Foreign Affairs Committee, said that following initial conversations, without any suspicion, a video call involving the imposter and committee 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 that the fairly brief appearance of the Volkov imposter on the committee seemed suspicious, and the deceit became clear after the imposter attended 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 our Lithuanian and Estonian colleagues,” the Latvian representative said.
The real Leonid Volkov also posted a comment on social media about the provocation on Thursday, calling it “an impressive scale of operations”.
He also believes that the 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 committees of all three Baltic states on my behalf and Tom Tugendhat, 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...”