Australian parliament criticised for 'deplorable' vetting, after pro-Putin propagandists strike blow in 'information war' – ABC News

Australian parliament criticised for 'deplorable' vetting, after pro-Putin propagandists strike blow in 'information war'
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Australian parliamentarians and their staff are being urged to be much more alert to Kremlin misinformation and propaganda after two high-profile pro-Putin comedians released a video of a prank on senators.
The Russian pair, one appearing in a bathrobe, initially tricked a parliamentary committee last year into thinking they were close supporters of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
They quipped about why the senators were not upside down in Australia, questioned which way the water flowed down the drain, apparently claimed Russian oligarchs were smuggling native animals including platypuses, and mentioned sexual assault allegations and masturbation in the federal parliament, before producing sock puppets and brandishing a toy fish.
As first reported by Nine Newspapers, video of part of the prank was shown on Wednesday at the Eastern Economic Forum, an event in Vladivostok where Russian President Vladimir Putin gave an address.
Addressing the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok the Russian leader reaffirmed his commitment to Crimea while Ukraine ramps up offensives in the region. 
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 leading TV presenter and propagandist, and Maria Zakharova, a high-profile spokeswoman at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"It is deplorable that this was allowed to happen," Robert Horvath, a specialist on Russian Politics at La Trobe University, said.
"This was not merely a 'prank'. It is 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 violations and corruption.
"The footage of the Australian parliamentary committee appeared alongside video of their stunt pretending to be Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in conversation with Carl Gershman of the US National Endowment for Democracy."
A number of Russian specialists and former intelligence analysts the ABC spoke to said it would have been easy to verify the comedians were not dissidents.
For example, by contacting Mr Navalny's team, which has large social media presence.
They added that parliamentarians should have been aware the Kremlin could try to discredit the work of the committee, given it was scrutinising Magnitsky-style sanctions.
The sanctions, which are now law, allow the government to target individuals in foreign countries who commit human rights abuses and have been vehemently opposed by Russia in other places where they've been introduced, including the USA, UK, 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.
There have been moves to block Russian propaganda in Australia since the invasion of Ukraine, but some Russian Australians are still consuming Russian news. Ukrainians are concerned about the message some people are hearing. 
"Vovan and Lexus's deception is part of a much broader set of measures by the Russian state and its proxies.
"These include the 2021 hacking attack on Channel 9 for broadcasting a documentary about the poisoning of Navalny, the Internet Research Agency's attempts to foment anti-Muslim hatred in Australia and support for pro-Kremlin anti-Western groups in Australia."
Russian propaganda and misinformation has long been regarded as a serious threat in Europe, particularly 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 have relegated Russia to the status of a regional, European threat."
Vovan and Lexus, Vladimir Kuznetsov and Aleksei Stolyarvov, have tricked many more high-profile figures than members of the Australian parliament.
They got through to Boris Johnson when he was foreign secretary and spoke with the Turkish president, Elton John, Prince Harry and JK Rowling, among others.
Vladimir Putin calls pop star Elton John and suggests a meeting, after the British singer was tricked last week by a prankster impersonating the Russian leader.
They have denied being associated with Russia's intelligence agencies or the Kremlin but have expressed support for President Putin.
In April last year, they appeared before the Australian parliamentary committee in a non-official hearing, which was not recorded by Hansard.
This type of hearing happens occasionally so senators can hear evidence anonymously and in this case, the pair were posing 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 of the event, Jacqui Lambie apparently phoned in for some of it.
The senators present were slightly suspicious when the Russian pair opened the conversation by asking about the way the water went down the drain and why the politicians were not upside down, given Australia was on the other side of the world.
However, for the majority of their appearance, the conversation apparently appeared genuine, as the comedians discussed the effectiveness of Magnitsky-style sanctions in other Western countries.
After 20 to 25 minutes though, things took a weird turn.
Ramping up sanctions on Russian individuals amid the nation's war on Ukraine, Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister announces a list that will see sanctions imposed on almost 40 Russians.
The pair started making strange claims about the involvement of Russian oligarchs in stealing Australian wildlife. One of the senators indicated they thought they 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 were wrapping up, the Russians said they had been warned by a colleague not to meet with Australian politicians because of the sexual harassment, abuse and masturbation that had been reported at parliament house.
According to notes taken, one allegedly bizarrely suggested Eric Abetz – who was appearing via video – might have not been in parliament for fear of being raped.
Then Mr Stolyarov, who was wearing the bathrobe, introduced a sock-puppet called Phil, who proceeded to discuss sexual harassment.
He then got out another sock puppet and the two puppets had a conversation, at which time the Russians' audio was cut.
Mr Stolyarov, who was muted, then apparently gesticulated with a toy fish until the video was disconnected too.
At least one senator eventually presumed the fish may have been a message that they'd been pranked, "hook, line and sinker," though at the time, the group were mystified as to the point of the appearance.
It was later, when the committee secretary shared an article from The Guardian newspaper which outlined how some European MPs had been duped into meeting fake Navalny representatives, that the penny dropped.
The incident was kept private, apparently to deprive the Russians of more notoriety, and there is some surprise the prank was not released earlier.
The ABC has been told some changes have been made to processes for parliamentary committee appearances in the wake of the incident and some of the senators expressed disappointment about vetting 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 not heard of it before and were unaware what extra precautions had been put in place.
"Clearly Australian parliamentarians and their staff need to exercise more caution on issues concerning Russia," Mr Horvath said.
"These comedians make no secret of the fact that they are working as Kremlin propagandists.
"Vovan and Lexus have been awarded a prize by Maria Zakharova, the Russian Roreign Ministry's chief propagandist."
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