Hello, this is Leonid Volkov* Using deepfake video and posing as Navalny’s right-hand man, Russian pranksters fool Latvian politicians and journalists into invitation and TV interview
As the coronavirus pandemic has forced more and more interactions into virtual space, the opportunities for deception in private meetings have become greater than ever. Technological advances have made remote work possible for millions of people, but machine learning and artificial intelligence mean it’s also far easier to manipulate the visual and audio content that allows us to remain connected without coming face to face. A pair of Russian pranksters notorious for ridiculing the Kremlin’s enemies is exploiting these two trends, and journalists and politicians in the Baltic states got a crash course in the last month.
This isn’t the first time pranksters have fooled people into believing they were talking to Leonid Volkov, imprisoned opposition politician Alexey Navalny’s chief of staff and longtime right-hand man. In February 2021, senior staff at Amnesty International fell for it, too, in a rush to smooth relations with Navalny’s team after internally revoking his “prison of conscience” status at their organization.
On April 21, the Latvian television network LTV broadcast what it believed was an interview with Volkov where he revealed that superstar YouTuber Yury Dud will take over as Navalny’s campaign manager. “With Yury Dud, maybe we’ll achieve what we’ve failed to do, so far — win seats in Russia’s Parliament,” a self-effacing Leonid Volkov told LTV in a recorded Zoom call. The announcement was a bombshell and a major exclusive for LTV. “Only on Latvian television!” the network told viewers.
Hours later, the network issued a retraction. The Volkov who appeared in the interview was actually a scammer using deepfake technology.
The stunt is likely the work of Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexey Stolyarov, better known as “Vovan” and “Lexus,” the infamous prankster pair responsible for duping Amnesty International in February and countless others in years past, usually targeting the Kremlin’s critics and geopolitical adversaries. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, Volkov accused Vovan and Lexus of posing as an OSCE official and inviting him to address the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly. Not only did the hoax fail, but it apparently prompted another virtual meeting on April 16 between Volkov and several OSCE parliamentarians to discuss the latest developments in Navalny’s situation.
After this defeat, Vovan and Lexus started baiting others with a Volkov deepfake.
They found more than a few ready takers, and it wasn’t just the journalists at LTV. Posing as Navalny’s chief of staff in video calls, the pranksters managed to speak with parliamentarians in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, as well as British politician Tom Tugendhat. On Facebook, Latvian lawmaker Rihards Kols wrote about “how the three Baltic states met with an imposter and the LTV news service fell for it, too.”
Kols says someone posing as Leonid Volkov emailed him on March 16 and asked to address the International Affairs Committee in Latvia’s Parliament (the Saeima) about political prisoners in Russia and Navalny’s attempted assassination. Latvian officials agreed and met virtually with the Volkov deepfake on March 23. A few days earlier, it turns out, the phony Volkov also spoke to Estonian lawmakers. Kols says he suspects that the Saeima’s press officers connected LTV with the pranksters, not realizing that they were facilitating further fraud.
“It’s unpleasant and awkward, of course. It stings, but maybe we — us and our colleagues in Lithuania and Estonia — ought to thank this fake Volkov for the lesson,” said Kols. “It’s clear now that there’s nothing ‘so-called’ about the crisis of truth and the era of post-truth and post-facts, which could potentially threaten the stability and security of society, not to mention the government.”
“Quite an impressive campaign!” Volkov wrote on Facebook. “But the most impressive thing is ‘my’ face on the conference call with the Baltic parliamentarians. It looks like my real face, but how did they manage to put it on the Zoom call? Welcome to the deep-fake era…”
Translation by Kevin Rothrock