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This week, the deadly air crash that killed Yevgeny Prigozhin also killed Wagner’s military mastermind and founder, who is credited with some of the group’s most high-profile and gruesome military achievements. heroes.

Dmitry Utkin was a grim man with a gaunt face, a clean-shaven head and a swastika tattoo adorning his collarbone. He worked in Russian military intelligence for two and a half years before founding Wagner.

Utekin, 53, is an equally powerful force within the group, along with Prigozhin, the group’s public face and funder, according to former and current Wagner fighters. Utkin is one of the few Wagner leaders with the experience in Russia’s armed forces necessary to manage a paramilitary organization operating from Ukraine to Africa.

“Prigor is in charge of business (and) communication. But the real master is Dmitry Utkin,” said Andras Ratz, a senior fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “His pre-Wagner career really defined Wagner’s past and present.”

Utkin, born in 1970, served as a special operations officer with Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU. He worked there for two and a half years, promoted to lieutenant colonel, before leaving in 2013 to join private security firm Moran Security Group.

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

although many wagner fighters Utekin was seen as a criminal opportunist, hoping to use the group as a stepping stone to generous wartime reparations and freedom from incarceration, but Utekin’s situation was different. A military leader with a hardline ideology, he spent his time training troops of Wagnerian fighters in various hotspots.

Dmitry Utkin
Dmitry Utkin has a shaved head and a tattoo of an SS collar patch

“He had real-world experience as a fighter. That’s why he was so important to Wagner,” said Jason Blazakis, a former U.S. State Department official now at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey.

“Removing Utkin from the board, if you will, would be a serious setback to Wagner’s operations,” Brazakis said. “He has a military bona fides that doesn’t exist within the organization.”

From the beginning, paramilitary organizations were Closely linked to Russian military intelligence — Utkin’s former employer — shares bases and infrastructure with the agency.

Utkin fought on the ground in Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and backed separatists in the Donbass, and last year Russia began a full-scale invasion. He also had combat experience in Syria.

In 2016, he was entertained and photographed with Putin at a Kremlin event for soldiers who “demonstrated exceptional courage and heroism.”

The United States imposed sanctions on Utekin in 2017, as did the European Union four years later, with Brussels accusing him of being personally responsible for “serious human rights 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 as he laughed. They later kicked his head like a football – and the murder was caught on video.

Brazakis, a former State Department official, said that while Utkin has always avoided the spotlight, he has receded further from the public eye since Russia invaded Ukraine last year — a strategy that is unlikely to be an accident.

“The stated goal of Russia’s entry into Ukraine was to root out the Nazis. If Utkin had more of a social media or media presence, it would weaken that narrative,” he said of the commander’s Nazi sympathies.

Utkin, however, was often in the company of his media-savvy boss. When Prigorzhin met Putin in the Kremlin in June, Utkin was there. He was also with him in Belarus, where both men appear to have moved as part of a deal to end Wagner’s June rebellion. On Wednesday, they took another final flight.

“Wagner’s financial and military leadership has been taken away from whoever caused that plane crash,” Larch said. “This is an opportunity that Prigozhin and Utkin can suppress together, killing two birds with one stone.”

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

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