Australia’s parliament slammed for ‘deplorable oversight’ after pro-Putin propagandists deal ‘information warfare’ blow

Australian parliamentarians and their staff are urged to be much more alert to disinformation and Kremlin propaganda after two high-profile pro-Putin comedians released a video of a prank on senators.

The Russian duo, one appearing in bathrobes, first tricked a parliamentary committee last year into believing they were close supporters of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

They joked about why senators weren’t upside down in Australia, wondered which way water was flowing in sewers, apparently claimed Russian oligarchs were smuggling native animals , including platypus, and mentioned allegations of sexual assault and masturbation in federal parliament, before producing sock puppets. and brandishing a toy fish.

As Nine Newspapers first reported, a video of part of the prank was shown Wednesday at the Eastern Economic Forum, an event in Vladivostok where Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a speech.

The comedians, known as Vovan and Lexus, spoke as part of a panel on ‘The Many Faces of Truth: How to Win the Information War’ with Dmitry Kiselyov, a television presenter and leading propagandist, and Maria Zakharova, a high-level spokesperson. at the Russian Foreign Ministry.

“It is deplorable that this could have happened,” said Robert Horvath, an expert on Russian politics at La Trobe University.

“It wasn’t just a ‘prank’. It’s part of Russia’s information war against Western democracies. It was a very small part of a much larger campaign.

“The Putin regime’s propaganda is designed to entertain viewers, to use ridicule to discredit Western institutions and Western efforts to confront the Putin regime’s human rights abuses and corruption.

“Australian parliamentary committee footage appeared alongside video of their stunt claiming to be Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in conversation with Carl Gershman of the US National Endowment for Democracy.”

Declining knowledge of Russia is a ‘major problem’ in Australia

A number of Russian specialists and former intelligence analysts with whom the ABC spoke said it would have been easy to verify that the comedians were not dissidents.

For example, by contacting Mr. Navalny’s team, which is very present on social networks.

They added that parliamentarians should have been aware that the Kremlin might try to discredit the work of the committee, given that it was looking at Magnitsky-style sanctions.

The sanctions, which are now in effect, allow the government to target individuals in foreign countries who commit human rights abuses and have been violently opposed by Russia in other places where they have been introduced, including in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union. .

“Parliamentarians and the Australian government need to be much more aware of the threat posed to our institutions by the Putin regime and its information warfare,” Mr Horvath said.

“The Vovan and Lexus deception is part of a much larger pattern of actions taken by the Russian state and its proxies.

“These include the Channel 9 hacking attack in 2021 for airing a documentary about the poisoning of Navalny, attempts by the Internet Research Agency to foment anti-Muslim hatred in Australia and the support for pro-Kremlin anti-Western groups in Australia.”

Russian propaganda and disinformation have long been considered a serious threat in Europe, especially in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.

“The decline of Australian institutional expertise on Russia is a major problem,” Mr Horvarth added.

“For too long we have been preoccupied with China and relegated Russia to the status of a regional and European threat.”

Comedians have deceived many more personalities than Australian senators

Vovan and Lexus, Vladimir Kuznetsov and Aleksei Stolyarvov, deceived many more personalities than members of the Australian parliament.

They communicated with Boris Johnson when he was Foreign Secretary and spoke with Turkish President Elton John, Prince Harry and JK Rowling, among others.

They denied being associated with Russian intelligence agencies or the Kremlin, but expressed support for President Putin.

In April last year, they appeared before Australia’s parliamentary committee in an unofficial hearing, which was not recorded by Hansard.

This type of hearing happens occasionally so senators can hear evidence anonymously and in this case the couple posed as dissidents.

Recently defeated Liberal senator Eric Abetz, Greens senator Janet Rice and now-deceased Labor senator Kimberley Kitching all took part in the hearing, while according to notes taken from the event, Jacqui Lambie phoned to enquire. ask for a part.

The senators in attendance were mildly suspicious as the Russian couple opened the conversation by asking how the water was flowing and why the politicians weren’t upside down given Australia was halfway around the world .

However, for the majority of their appearance, the conversation seemed seemingly genuine, as the comedians discussed the effectiveness of Magnitsky-style sanctions in other Western countries.

A strange hearing in the Senate

After 20-25 minutes though, things took a weird turn.

The couple began making bizarre claims about the involvement of Russian oligarchs in stealing Australian wildlife. One of the senators indicated that he thought he had heard of it.

The Russians also said Australians could support Navalny and democracy activists by subscribing to a YouTube channel and sending money via Bitcoin.

As things wound down, the Russians said they were warned by a colleague not to meet with Australian politicians due to the sexual harassment, abuse and masturbation that had been reported to parliament.

According to notes taken, one of them bizarrely suggested that Eric Abetz – who appeared via video – might not have been in parliament for fear of being raped.

Next, Mr. Stolyarov, who wore the bathrobe, introduced a sock puppet called Phil, who then discussed sexual harassment.

He then pulled out another sock puppet and the two puppets had a conversation, at which time the audio of the Russians cut out.

Mr Stolyarov, who was mute, then apparently gesticulated with a toy fish until the video was also disconnected.

The senators said to themselves, what was that?

At least one senator eventually speculated that the fish may have been a message that it had been hacked, “hook, line and sinker”, although at the time the group was mystified as to the point of the l ‘appearance.

It was later, when the committee secretary shared an article from The Guardian newspaper describing how some MEPs had been tricked into meeting fake Navalny representatives, that the penny plummeted.

The incident was kept secret, apparently to deprive the Russians of more notoriety, and it’s surprising that the prank wasn’t published sooner.

The CBA was told that changes had been made to processes for appearing before parliamentary committees following the incident and some senators expressed disappointment with the audit at the time.

However, when the story appeared in the Nine Newspapers on Thursday, several senior senators not involved in the hearing said they had never heard of it before and were unsure what extra precautions had been taken. put in place.

“It’s clear that Australian parliamentarians and their staff need to exercise more caution on issues relating to Russia,” Mr Horvath said.

“These comedians do not hide that they work as Kremlin propagandists.

“Vovan and Lexus received an award from Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s chief propagandist.”

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