Ghassan Charbel
Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

The Digger of Mines and Graves 

In 1961, the beautiful city of St. Petersburg committed a grave sin. It gave birth to a poor child with a great appetite. The poor boy did not know his father, who had died young. He banked on skiing as a way to meet his ambitions, but he never really took off.

As a teenager, he turned into a thug in alleys of the city where he learned theft and lawlessness. He would spend the majority of the 1980s behind bars. The condemnation was clear and frank. The city did not realize the gravity of what it had done. It never predicted that the child would make his way into the record books for the number of victims he claimed and mines and graves that he dug.

Nine years earlier, the city gave birth to another child who would later hold the fate of post-Soviet Russia with an iron grip. The city never imagined that the fate of the two men would collide.

We will miss him. Diabolical figures are the bread and butter of journalists. They often steal the headlines. The innocents don’t have any story to tell. They don’t instill awe or anger. Blood does not flow from their fingers and they don’t reek of corruption. They are missing that magical quality called excitement, which is the backbone of journalism and writing.

A single thrilling man is enough to captivate a reader. This time, the story of one thrilling man became entwined with the other thrilling man who made him and gave him free reign and cover to carry out his operations. Coincidence would bring together Yevgeny Prigozhin, the commander of the Wagner group mercenaries, with Vladimir Putin, the master of Stalin’s office.

During the 1990s, Prigozhin watched the rise of the “red barons”, who used deception and force to seize the assets of the slain Soviet Union. They amassed unimaginable wealth and surrounded themselves with guards, private jets and glamorous women.

In St. Petersburg, a defeated Putin had returned from his duties near the Berlin Wall. He watched on as Russia teetered from the collapse of the Soviet Union and was left at the mercy of those who relished the demise of the Communist Party and its security apparatus. The country was reeling from its historic defeat and the Kremlin had to deal with the blunders committed by President Boris Yeltsin, who was more preoccupied with filling his glass than the future of the country.

Coincidence often seals fate. In 2001, Putin took his guest Jacques Chirac to a restaurant in St. Petersburg. The food was delicious and the restaurant owner demonstrated his skill and dedication. A year later, Putin returned with another guest, George W. Bush. Prigozhin was determined not to miss the opportunity.

The greatest prize in the great and mysterious Russia is to make your way to the mind or heart of the czar. Prigozhin forgot all the years he spent behind bars, but he learned the body language of prisoners, their cruelty and bluntness. He donned business suits and his master allowed him the opportunity to rise up the ladder in rapid leaps and bounds. He would oversee the president’s banquets. He would then become responsible for feeding the army. These were mouth-watering contracts that could only be won through the approval of the master of the Kremlin.

In 2014, Putin kicked off his long season of vengeance. He annexed Crimea and returned it to Russia’s warm embrace. He then destabilized Donbas. Russian military volunteers poured in in search of wars, a salary and spoils. Prigozhin did not let the opportunity slip between his fingers. The Wagner military firm was born. Its members committed whatever the Russian army hesitated in doing.

After a year, Putin would turn the tide of the war in Syria and the Wagner chief would assume the responsibility of guarding oil wells in return for a monthly salary. The mercenaries would also take part in battles against ISIS.

The game seemed simple and smooth. Prigozhin would head to Africa and guard its mines, while also offering security services to the host countries. He likes gold and precious metals. His men do not hesitate in killing whoever gets too close or comes in their way. In 2018, three Russian journalists tried to expose Wagner’s role in Central Africa. They soon turned up dead. The master of mercenaries was merciless. When Putin launched his war in Ukraine, he saw the opportunity of a lifetime.

The Russian army advanced on Kyiv, but it resisted. The army was forced to turn back, leaving burning Russian tanks in its wake. The “clown” Volodymyr Zelenskyy was not intimidated. He stood in the eye of the storm, rallying his citizens and the world. The West did not hesitate in pumping aid into his country.

Putin was alarmed with the number of coffins flowing into Russia from the war. The army, which he had spent hundreds of billions on modernizing, had disappointed him. He was astounded that the enemy now had the initiative. He relied on Prigozhin. He gave him what he had never given anyone. He allowed him to go to jails and recruit new members. He promised amnesty to those who fought six months in Ukraine. Thousands joined the Wagner army. The corpses mounted in Ukraine’s Bakhmut.

The world heard Prigozhin roar. The Russian army was not sending him enough weapons and ammunition. He spoke of cowardice, corruption and betrayal. He upped his rhetoric when he stormed a city amid a sea of blood. The master of the mercenaries was a hero to some of his people. Victory leads to arrogance and could also lead to suicide.

The Wagner leader waded into forbidden territory. He doubted the war, which Putin had called a “special military operation,” while it is actually the most dangerous conflict since World War II.

Prigozhin acted as though he had saved Putin from what history would call the Bakhmut curse. He dealt a blow to the image of the Russian military and its command. He dealt a blow to the image of the Kremlin and its master. He spoke as though he were an officer or a partner. He went so far as to mutiny and march on Moscow.

The images in western media wounded the architect of the great coup. He spoke of betrayal and everyone knows what the punishment of betrayal is. The traitor’s head would be cut off, the same way Prigozhin has repeatedly done and boasted about. Cutting off Wagner’s head will not kill it but return it to heel. Each leader has his style and hammer.

The most important issue at hand is the open war. Ukraine itself may be killed by the hammer of war. Part of its body may be cut off. The hammer of war may strike Russia itself if the conflict stretches on. Russia may become a regional power that relies on Beijing in a world where China inherits the position once occupied by the Soviet Union.

Prigozhin dug the graves of many people. But in recent months, it appeared as though he was digging his own.