If you want to understand Vladimir Putin’s stranglehold on power in Russia, watch the new film “Navalny,” which premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on CNN.
The Russian government went to great lengths to oust opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who was sentenced to prison after surviving a poisoning attempt.
The film documents the unlikely detective work that identified the Russian spy team that hunted and then attempted to kill Navalny, as well as his recovery in Germany and his return to Russia, where he was immediately arrested.
I spoke to one of the investigators who unmasked the spies, Christo Grozev – who works with the Bellingcat investigative group – about his methods, his new assignment documenting war crimes in Ukraine and his point of view. view on how the ethics of journalism must change to combat government corruption.
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below:
WHAT MATTERS: In the documentary, you put all of these pieces together – from phone numbers to car registrations and so on. – to determine who poisoned Navalny. How did you and Bellingcat develop this investigative process? And what prompted you to apply it to Russia in particular?
GRÖZEV: We started in a different way, simply collecting social posts in the context of the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
The first investigation conducted by Bellingcat by simply gathering data elements available on the internet was the downing of MH17 (Malaysia Airlines) in July 2014.
At that time, a lot of public data was available on Russian soldiers, Russian spies, etc. — because they still hadn’t caught up with their time, so they were keeping a lot of digital records, social media, posting selfies in front of guns shooting down airliners.
This is where we kind of perfected the art of reconstructing a crime based on digital breadcrumbs. … But over time, the bad actors we were investigating started hiding their stuff better. … In 2016, it was no longer possible to find soldiers leaving status selfies on the Internet because a new law had been passed in Russia, prohibiting for example the use of mobile phones by the secret services and the military .
So we had to develop a new way to get government crime data. We have found our way into this gray data market in Russia, which includes many, many gigabytes of leaked databases, car registration databases, passport databases.
Most of them are available for free, completely free to download from torrent sites or from forums and the internet.
And for some of them, they are more current. You can actually buy the data through a broker, so we decided that in cases where we have a strong enough hypothesis that a government committed the crime, we should probably drop our ethical limits by using these data – as long as it is verifiable, as long as it does not come from a single source but is corroborated by at least two or three other sources of data.
This is how we develop it. And the first big use case of this approach was the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in 2018 (in the UK), when we used this combination of open source and gray market bought data in Russia to piece together who exactly the two poisoners were. And it worked tremendously.
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