Powell duped by Russian pranksters who claimed to be Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Politics

Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome Powell holds a news conference after the Fed raised interest rates by a quarter of a percentage point following a two-day meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) on interest rate policy in Washington, March 22, 2023.
Leah Millis | Reuters

WASHINGTON — Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell spoke by phone with two Russian pranksters earlier this year who falsely claimed to be President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine.

Video clips circulated on Russian state TV showing Powell fielding questions from two well known pro-Kremlin comedians, Vladimir Kuznetsov and Alexei Stolyarov, who use the stage names Vovan and Lexus.

“Chair Powell participated in a conversation in January with someone who misrepresented himself as the Ukrainian president,” a Fed spokesperson told CNBC on Thursday. “It was a friendly conversation and took place in a context of our standing in support of the Ukrainian people in this challenging time. No sensitive or confidential information was discussed.”

The video appears to have been edited, the Fed spokesperson said, adding that they could not confirm the video’s accuracy. “The matter has been referred to appropriate law enforcement, and out of respect for their efforts, we won’t be commenting further.”

Powell does not appear to have said anything controversial during his call with the Zelenskyy impersonators, according to Bloomberg, which first reported the prank.

Yet the sheer fact that two well known allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin were able to evade detection and speak to Powell directly raises serious questions about security procedures at the central bank’s Washington headquarters.

Since 2014, Vovan and Lexus have played the same phone call prank on dozens of government officials and public figures around the world, often with the apparent goal of embarrassing people who criticize the Kremlin.

Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine has effectively raised the stakes of each of these hoaxes, however, as the U.S. and Europe have armed Ukraine’s defense forces and waged a global sanctions campaign against Russia.

Following a missile explosion in Poland in November, Vovan and Lexus impersonated French President Emmanuel Macron on a prank call with Polish President Andrzej Duda.

In January, they tricked former then German Chancellor Angela Merkel into thinking she was speaking to a former president of Ukraine.

Last month, the pair impersonated Zelenskyy again and spoke directly with European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde. They later released a video of the call, during which Lagarde said a European central bank digital currency could be introduced this October.

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