September 26, 2023

Event Coverage Highlight

Roy Rowan Award Winners Outline Russia’s Tools of Global Influence

Clockwise from upper left: James B. Steele, Michael Schwirtz, Dionne Searcey, Malachy Brown and David Kirkpatrick.

by Chad Bouchard

The toolbox of Russian foreign policy and influence around the world includes assassination squads, bombing raids targeting civilians, sophisticated disinformation campaigns, and open bribery for political control in vulnerable areas, a series of New York Times investigations spanning several countries found in 2019. The Times won the Roy Rowan Award for its entry titled “Russia’s Shadow War.”

On Jan. 14, the OPC hosted a discussion with reporters whose work was part of the series, including Malachy Brown, senior producer of the visual investigations team, Michael Schwirtz, Dionne Searcey and David Kirkpatrick. Head judge James B. Steele moderated.

The Roy Rowan Award honors the year’s best investigative reporting in any medium on an international story.

Browne opened the discussion with a walkthrough of his Visual Investigation team’s work in proving that Russian bombers had targeted healthcare facilities in Syria. Browne and his colleagues discussed that reporting, which also won the 2019 Kim Wall Award, in depth during a program on Jan. 12, which is available to watch and read about here.

Browne displayed slides to illustrate the kinds of data and evidence the team used to catalogue, triangulate and confirm the source of the attacks on 72 medical facilities in 2019.

Schwirtz reported on Russian interference in Ukraine, Madagascar and Bulgaria for the series.

He said the team set out to understand motivations behind Russian intelligence operations around the world in what he called an “aggressive push by the Kremlin to make itself more relevant in international affairs.”

One of his investigations delved into the case of Oleg Smorodinov, a Russian hitman and sex trafficker who had allegedly killed a Ukrainian engineer at a local prison for the price of a few thousand dollars and a Mercedes van.

“I discovered this kind of low-grade, almost criminal style murders that were taking place all over this part of the world,” Schwirtz said.

He also reported on Russian election interference in Madagascar, where Russian political consultants contacted candidates and ended up providing hundreds of thousands of dollars in support to the wrong candidate, failing to show “a great deal of competence.”

Schwirtz also followed a Russian military intelligence unit designed to destabilize governments. In Bulgaria, the group tried to poison an arms dealer who was dealing with Ukraine.

Searcey, who was based in East Africa where she covered 25 countries, talked about her reporting on Russian presence, diamond dealers and mercenaries in the Central African Republic. She said she stumbled on the story while covering a humanitarian aid story and started to notice billboards and tee shirts displaying pro-Russia images.

“But most obvious were the white pickup trucks of Russians roaming around town all crammed into the back to the truck, at 5:00 a.m. with weapons. They were just everywhere,” she said.

Her reporting uncovered a network of Russian influence on local warlords who were negotiating peace agreements. Searcey recalled obtaining a list of receipts for Russian bribes to members of parliament in exchange for political votes.

“[Russians] were taking advantage of a country that’s been in crisis for many, many years. And a country that is so poor,” she said. “It’s just a very vulnerable population. I think what all of our reporting has shown is that the Russians take advantage of the vulnerable.”

Kirkpatrick discussed his reporting in Libya, where Russia had been providing financial and tactical support for a Lybian strongman for years, and more recently escalated to an air campaign of armed drones, Sukhoi jets and coordinated missile strikes, as well as about 200 Russian mercenary snipers on the ground.

“The breakthrough for me was getting up to the front line and visiting a field hospital there. I managed to show up in a lull in the fighting, and the doctors there spoke very vividly about the quality of the wounds they were seeing from the Russian forces,” he said. Russian snipers were using hollow-point bullets, Kirkpatrick added, which cause more internal damage as fragments shatter inside the body, a factor that terrified Libyan soldiers.

He said the Russian campaign tilted what had been a stalemate in the Libyan Civil War, establishing a long-term Russian presence as spoiler for their chosen side in the conflict.

“This, after all, was a conflict precipitated in part by the American support for the uprising in 2011. So the United States had gone in, been greeted as liberators, invested a lot of money, and then seen the outcome of all this taken from them and now set to be largely determined by the Russians.”

Watch a playlist of video clips from the program below:


Read the winning work via the links below:


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