2023 Digital Video Storytelling, Medium Form, Large Newsroom winner

How Russia is Smuggling Ukrainian Grain to Pay for Putin’s War

About the Project

The Associated Press and FRONTLINE (PBS) revealed the extent of a sophisticated Russian-run smuggling operation that used falsified manifests and seaborne subterfuge to steal Ukrainian grain worth at least $530 million — cash that has helped feed President Vladimir Putin’s war machine.

The video followed the trail of 1.2 million metric tons of wheat, corn and soybeans seized from farms and silos in occupied areas of Ukraine and carried by truck and train to Russian-controlled ports in Crimea. The grain was then loaded onto bulk cargo ships owned by corporations controlled by the Russian and Syrian regimes whose crews had turned off their radio transponders in an attempt to conceal their locations.

AP/FRONTLINE tracked more than 55 shiploads to ports in the Middle East, where it was sold through brokers to companies that processed the ill-gotten grain into flour and packaged foods. The story revealed some of the individual businesses involved using exclusive video taken of the ships unloading at docks in Turkey and Lebanon and obtaining copies of shipping manifests falsified to pass off the grain as coming from a small Black Sea port in Russia. AP/FRONTLINE showed that the Russian port was far too shallow to accommodate the massive ships carrying the grain and published satellite imagery proving the ships had actually been loaded in occupied Crimea. This project was the first to track the entire process from Russian soldiers occupying Ukrainian grain facilities to grocery store shelves in Turkey and Lebanon, identifying the companies involved along the way. AP/FRONTLINE used satellite imagery and transponder data to show large cargo ships anchored off the Russian coast rendezvousing with smaller ships shuttling grain from both Crimean and Russian ports, obscuring the true origin of the cargo.

Judges Comments

This is a very difficult story in which journalists clearly had to go to extraordinary lengths to provide evidence around this dark economy happening under our noses. Not only was the piece impactful, the judges hope it inspires similar methods elsewhere.