It was a winding, wonkish and occasionally obscure conversation about foreign coal exploration, natural-gas pipelines and pig manure as a power source.
But only one of the men on the line — Energy Secretary Rick Perry — held sway over his nation’s energy policy. On the other end of the conversation were Vladimir “Vovan” Kuznetsov and Alexei “Lexus” Stolyarov, who had just added Perry to their list of high-profile hoax victims.
“Secretary Perry is the latest target of two Russian pranksters,” Energy Department spokeswoman Shaylyn Hynes said in an email to The Washington Post. “These individuals are known for pranking high-level officials and celebrities, particularly those who are supportive of an agenda that is not in line with their governments. In this case, the energy security of Ukraine.”
The man the pranksters hoodwinked is in charge of the government agency that maintains the nation’s stockpile of nuclear warheads and cleans up nuclear waste.
During the conversation, which was posted in its entirety on Vesti, a Russian news site, Perry was convinced he was talking to Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, who appears to speak through an interpreter. Perry talked about a potential pipeline across the Baltic Sea for Russian gas, cyberattacks on the U.S. power grid, natural-gas exploration in Ukraine and the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.
“I hope that stepping away from the Paris accord will not have any negative impact with our relationship with the Ukraine,” Perry said. “We tried to divorce the politics from this and really just let our record stand, one that I’m very proud of.”
He also talked about a meeting scheduled for August where they would let American business executives talk about extracting oil and natural gas in Ukraine.
“What we have seen in Texas is the great increase of productivity, particularly in shale gas because of hydraulic fracturing and the directional drilling,” Perry said.
Perhaps the only giveaway about the true nature of the call was a statement the “Ukrainian prime minister” made about a new biofuel invented by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, according to the Pravda Report newspaper.
The fuel was made from a mix of home-brewed alcohol and pig manure.
Perry said he’d like to get more information about the “scientific development.”
The pranksters seemed to get past Perry’s defenses with opportunistic timing.
On June 20, Perry hosted Groysman and his delegation at the Department of Energy, a meeting that was widely reported in the Ukrainian press, according to the DOE.
Three weeks later, the department received a request for a phone follow-up with the Ukrainian prime minster. That phone call was bogus. So was the lengthier call with Perry that followed on July 19.
The pranksters say they have a victims’ list that includes several high-profile names: singer Elton John, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Croatian prime minister, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The rumor-debunking website Snopes has said some of those prank claims are unproven, and points out that if the pranksters can impersonate one person on the phone, they can easily impersonate two.
The pranksters called singer Elton John in 2015 claiming to be Russian President Vladimir Putin. The call happened shortly after the singer had criticized the president’s stance on LGBT rights.
“We thought it wasn’t likely that Putin would want to meet with him and call, at least not so quickly,” Kuznetsov said, according to the Guardian.
“But it turned out that Elton John was really waiting for this call, and so he immediately believed it really was a conversation with the people who we said we were,” he told newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.
Elton John was elated about the call with the Russian leader. He posted “an effusive Instagram post in which he thanks the Russian leader for having reached out to him.”
He took it down shortly afterward.
This post has been updated.