Wagner mastermind dies in crash alongside Prigozhin


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The fatal plane crash that killed Yevgeny Prigozhin this week also eliminated Wagner’s military mastermind and founder, who was credited with some of the group’s most notable — and gruesome — military successes.

Dmitry Utkin, a grim man with a gaunt face, smooth-shaven head and Nazi SS tattoos decorating his collarbone, founded Wagner in the wake of a two-and-a-half decade career with Russian military intelligence.

Alongside Prigozhin — the public face and financier of the group — 53-year-old Utkin was an equally powerful force within the organisation, according to former and current Wagner fighters. Utkin was one of the few Wagner leaders with the extensive experience in the Russian armed forces necessary to run a paramilitary group with operations stretching from Ukraine to Africa.

“Prigozhin did the business [and] the communication. But the real owner was Dmitry Utkin,” said András Rácz, a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “His career before Wagner really defined what Wagner was and is.”

Born in 1970, Utkin served as a special operations officer in the GRU — Russia’s military intelligence agency. Over two and a half decades there, he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel before leaving in 2013 to join Moran Security Group, a private security firm.

A year later, Utkin established Wagner, named after the German composer beloved by the Nazis. His own call sign was also “Wagner”.

While many Wagner fighters were seen as criminal opportunists looking to use the group as a stepping stone to a generous wartime payout and freedom from life in prison, Utkin was of a different cut. A military leader with a hardline ideology, he spent his time training bands of Wagner fighters in different hotspots.

Dmitry Utkin sported a shaven head and tattoos of Nazi SS collar tabs

“He had real-world experience as a fighter. This is what made him so vitally important to Wagner,” said Jason Blazakis, a former US state department official currently with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

“Taking Utkin off the board, if you will, is going to have a serious setback for Wagner in its operations,” Blazakis said. “He has these military bona fides that don’t exist in the same way within the organisation.”

From the beginning, the paramilitary group was closely tied to Russia’s military intelligence — Utkin’s former employer — sharing a base and infrastructure with the agency.

Utkin fought on the ground in Ukraine both in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists in Donbas, and last year, when it started the full-scale invasion. He also had combat experience in Syria.

In 2016 he was feted at the Kremlin at an event for soldiers who had “demonstrated particular courage and heroism”, taking a photo alongside Putin.

The US imposed sanctions on Utkin in 2017, with the EU following four years later as Brussels accused him of being personally responsible for “serious human right violations” including torture and executions. In one incident in Homs, Syria, Wagner fighters — on Utkin’s orders — tortured and beheaded a Syrian deserter, eventually setting him on fire while laughing. Later they kicked his head around like a football — with the murder captured on video.

While Utkin always shied away from the spotlight, he had receded even further from public view since Russia invaded Ukraine last year — a strategy unlikely to be an accident, said Blazakis, the former state department official.

“Russia’s stated goal going into Ukraine was to root out the Nazis. If Utkin had more of a social media or media presence that undercuts that narrative,” he said, in reference to the commander’s Nazi sympathies.

Yet Utkin was a frequent companion of his more media-savvy boss. When Prigozhin met Putin at the Kremlin in June, Utkin was there. He was by his side, too, in Belarus, where both men seemingly relocated as part of the deal that ended Wagner’s June insurrection. And again, on Wednesday, on their final flight.

“Whoever made that aircraft crash took out both the financial and military leadership of Wagner,” Rácz said. “This was an opportunity that Prigozhin and Utkin could be neutralised together, hitting two birds with one stone.”

He concluded: “Utkin was loyal to Prigozhin — loyal to the death.”

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Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden is a news writer for LinkDaddy News. She writes health, sport, tech, and more. Some of her favorite topics include the latest trends in fitness and wellness, the best ways to use technology to improve your life, and the latest developments in medical research.

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