Fake letter from Michael Gove part of wider Russian disinformation campaign on refugees
Over the weekend of February 11th, a photograph of a letter, purportedly written by the British Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, began circulating on social media. The letter was addressed to registered UK sponsors of Ukrainian refugees, asking them to provide personal details on any Ukrainian adult men staying with them in their households. This information was apparently demanded by the Ukrainian embassy in London, for reasons unspecified.
A threat was also included: “Failure to do so MIGHT result in a lower financial benefit for the sponsor”.
Figure 1: The letter.
The assumption of most of those sharing this image was that the Ukrainian authorities were seeking details of adult men so that they could be conscripted for military service.
The letter looks relatively authentic at first glance. However, a closer examination reveals typographical and linguistic errors, including the omission of the letter “t” in “government” (a rare but plausible typo) and the unusual term “precising”, suggesting a non-native English speaker drafted the text.
The email address that was given, “email@example.com”, does not appear to have been used in any official communications. The domain is real, registered by the government in 2021, and is used for some contacts within the department, even though no website has ever been attached to it.
Indeed, by 6 February 2023, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities had issued a statement that the letter was fake.
Only one version of this forged letter has so far, appeared online.
A transnational campaign
This letter was not just a one-off oddity, but appears part of a coordinated campaign directed at both refugees and the wider public in countries supporting the Ukrainian war effort.
The campaign began around 20 January. Posts circulated in diaspora and refugee Telegram groups in Lithuania and Latvia, warning that the authorities in those countries were collecting information on Ukrainian men so they could be deported for military service at home.
These posts included images of purported forms that Ukrainian men had to fill out for the Lithuanian and then Latvian migration departments:
Figure 2: Posts circulated via Telegram on 20 January 2023.
The Lithuanian Migration Department swiftly issued a statement that these forms were forgeries aimed at spreading disinformation and collecting Ukrainians' personal data.
Five days later, a Belarusian pro-regime Telegram channel posted screenshots purportedly taken from the Facebook pages of Remigijus Simasius, mayor of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, and Gunars Ansins, mayor of the Latvian city of Liepaja sharing a letter, from the Ukrainian ambassador, requesting the two countries deport Ukrainian men back home for conscription. These were also forgeries.
Figure 3: False screenshots of Remigijus Simasius and Gunars Ansins Facebook posts sharing the letter.
The Telegram channel attempted to cover for the fact that neither post would appear on the politicians’ Facebook pages, by posting a screenshot of a notice that the “post was not available”, to create the impression that the statements had been posted and then deleted.
Ansins himself posted about the fakes shortly after the Belarusian post, confirming that no such post had been made, and adding that emails from a fake Ukrainian embassy account, using the made-up domain “@mfa-ua.info” were spreading similar claims.
Nonetheless, these crudely faked screenshots were broadcast that same afternoon by Belarusian state TV.
Figure 4: Belarus 1 broadcasting the forged letter.
The fakes were also amplified by Russian state-controlled channels on Telegram, such as Ukraina.ru - a news site openly run by the Russian state-owned Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) company which also runs, amongst other outlets, Sputnik and RIA Novosti.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Latvia itself issued a statement denouncing the fakes and stating that no such requests for the deportation of Ukrainian men have been made. It is worth noting that the Ukrainian diaspora Telegram groups in which these letters were first shared were swift to identify them as fakes and users warned each other not to trust the claims.
In the UK, CIR has not, so far, observed similar messages being circulated within major Ukrainian diaspora groups on Telegram, suggesting that the organisers of the campaign recognised the lack of traction they had received among audiences already wary of disinformation, focusing instead on the broader impact achievable with the public in host countries.
The British letter
The first appearance of the letter appears to have been on the local community news platform InYourArea.co.uk, in which a user, claiming to be from Ipswich, asked neighbours if they knew why the Ukrainian government was seeking information on adult male refugees.
“Hello there! I’m James. I reside in Ipswich, east England. I’ve been part of the UK Government Homes For Ukraine initiative for 5 months now. I am hosting a sweet couple from the city of Lviv or something like that, a young lady and her husband. Both in their late 20s. They have already found a job and we get on well together. They are simply nice people but that’s not the point of the story. Just a couple of days ago I received a letter from the department for leveling up, housing & communities that told me to report the authority a certain data on my guests. I will obviously do that, but I just don’t really get the reason why should I. Moreover, it looks like Bogdan (the lady’s husband, the refugee) must now visit his country’s embassy in London for only God knows what reason. The letter reads ‘Embassy of Ukraine inquiry’. Does anybody know what is it all about?”
This statement reads strangely for a native speaker. Notably, locals would not refer to the Ipswich area as “Ipswich, east England”. However, a Russian speaker may parse the wider region of “East Anglia” as such, given that Angliya is the Russian word for England. Besides, there is no reason anyone posting in a local area message board for an Ipswich postcode would state the geographical location of the city.
The photo shared in this post (the presumed original source) is, significantly, unredacted, unlike those shared on Twitter and Facebook in recent days:
Figure 5: First letter shared in InYourArea.
This indicates this is likely the earliest version seen so far. It also confirms that the username chosen for the InYourArea post, “James McDunkan” is the name chosen for this persona. No person of that name appears in any public record or anywhere else on the Internet.
This post was made at 16:31 GMT on Saturday 4 February. Just over twenty minutes later, at 16:55, the Russian propaganda website SouthFront published a slightly different version of “James'” query, this time apparently directed to their editors, along with the now-widespread redacted version of the letter.
I’m James. I reside in Ipswich, East England. I’ve been part of the UK Government Homes For Ukraine initiative for 5 months now. I am hosting a sweet couple from the city of Lviv or something like that, a young lady and her husband. Both in their late 20s. They have already found a job and we get on well together. They are simply nice people but that’s not the point of the story.
Just a couple of days ago I received a letter from the department for leveling up, housing & communities that told me to report the authority a certain data on my guests. I will obviously do that, but I just don’t really get the reason why should I. Moreover, it looks like B… (the lady’s husband, the refugee) must now visit his country’s embassy in London for only God knows what reason. The letter reads ‘Embassy of Ukraine enquiry’.
What does that ‘inquiry’ mean? Why would Ukrainian embassy gather such data? Does anybody know what is it all about?
I hope this email finds you and you would be kind to post it on your platform!
SouthFront made the explicit connection in this publication between the fake letter and conscription:
“Obviously, this is not just a survey on Ukrainian refugees. The fact that the embassy is interested exclusively in Ukrainian men over the age of 18 indicates that this measures are taken amid some mobilization procedures. It is likely that the Kiev regime is starting to look for new soldiers among refugees abroad amid the ongoing preparations for the spring offensive on the fronts which was recently announced by Biden.”
This redacted version of the Gove letter soon spread on social media, appearing numerous times on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and 4chan by the following morning.
In some instances, there were clear signs of coordination. For example, three different Twitter accounts repeatedly shared the image with identical texts, often tagging other users to get their attention:
Figure 6: Examples of the same text shared by different Twitter accounts within a short timeframe.
Other Twitter accounts with paid-for bluetick status promoted the claim, meaning that these posts were prioritised in users’ Twitter feeds, including former Labour MP Chris Williamson, who now works for Iran’s state-owned Press TV.
The campaign, which initially seemed to be directed at Ukrainian refugees themselves as a way to spread fear and possibly collect information, is now aimed at the general public in the West in support of a wider propaganda effort to portray the Ukrainian armed forces as desperate, running out of manpower, and resorting to cruel means to obtain further recruits for their war effort. The ultimate aim is to reduce the level of public support for Ukraine in democratic states, and therefore make governments hesitant to provide continued assistance. Similar campaigns are likely already or will shortly be underway in other countries hosting Ukrainian refugees, and members of the diaspora and local media should be alert to such tactics.
Forged letters have been used previously in long-term Russian information influence campaigns in a similar way. For example, Secondary Infektion, an information operation run between 2014 and 2020 by a central entity based in Russia, used forgeries (including several counterfeit letters) and social media amplification to influence audiences across Europe and North America, often portraying Ukraine as a failed state and an unreliable partner.