The mysterious, war-tested professional officer and mercenary is said to have given the Wagner group its name.
Dmitry Utkin, a shadowy figure whose callsign “Wagner” allegedly inspired the name of the Russian private mercenary group, died in a plane crash along with Yevgeny Prigozhin on Wednesday.
Utkin, who served in Russian military intelligence, is often cited as the founder of the Wagner group, but many analysts now say the rumor was merely a smokescreen for Prigozhin, who only recently acknowledged his leading role in the armed group.
So who really was the 53-year-old veteran aboard the doomed private jet that fell from the sky between Moscow and St. Petersburg?
Here’s what you need to know:
Utkin’s path from career officer to mercenary
Utkin was born on June 11, 1970 in Asbest, a town on the slopes of the Ural Mountains named after the local asbestos industry. At the age of 18 he apparently joined the military.
According to his online resume, unearthed by investigative website Bellingcat, he served in the Spetsnaz GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, between 1988 and 2008.
As a lieutenant colonel, he served in Russia’s two wars in Chechnya between 1994 and 2000.
Russian soldiers en route to Chechnya look on from the roof of a vehicle January 9, 2000 as they pass the Adler checkpoint in Ingushetia [WAW via Reuters]The time he left the military remains unclear, but in 2013 he appears to have been employed by a mysterious Hong Kong-based private military company (PMC) called the Slavonic Corps.
The PMC’s only known operation was in Syria, where it reportedly lost a battle with fighters from the al-Qaeda armed group.
The birth of Wagner
The Wagner Group first emerged in 2014 when Russia sent troops to Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, annexed the area and began supporting Separatist rebels in the east of the country.
The group itself is believed to have been named after Utkin’s callsign Wagner, a reference to Richard Wagner, the favorite composer of German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
It remains unclear to what extent Utkin was involved in the formation of the group, but evidence shows that Utkin played a key role in the war in Ukraine’s Donbass region and was reportedly even injured in the fighting.
His role in the war was later confirmed by the Ukrainian intelligence service, which intercepted phone calls between him and GRU Colonel Oleg Ivannikov and with Major General Yevgeny Nikiforov, head of Russia’s 58th Army.
According to various sources, Utkin was active with Wagner in Syria and on the African continent between 2015 and 2022.
A BBC investigation in 2021 linked him to documents revealing Wagner’s involvement in the Libyan civil war.
He is also accused of giving the order to beat a Wagner defector to death and filming the act in Homs, Syria.
In 2016 he was awarded the Order of Courage by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin for his services in Ukraine.
In 2022, after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Utkin appears to have taken part in the long and bloody battle for Bakhmut. However, some reports suggest that he remained focused on the group’s activities in Africa and Syria.
Was Utkin involved in the Wagner mutiny?
Unlike Prigozhin, who seemed to relish the limelight, Utkin remained a mysterious and elusive figure during his time with Wagner.
How involved he was in the insurgent march on Moscow in July remains unclear, but reports suggest he may have led one of Wagner’s columns.
He seems to have remained loyal to Prigozhin and the group to the end of his life.
In a video posted not long after the group’s exile to Belarus on a Telegram channel associated with Wagner, Utkin and Prigozhin can be seen addressing a group of fighters together.
In it, a voice resembling Utkin’s was heard saying, ‘This is not the end; “It’s just the beginning of the biggest contract in the world, which will be carried out very soon,” before adding, in English, “Welcome to Hell.”
Was Utkin a Nazi?
Utkin was undoubtedly a Nazi sympathizer.
One of the few photos of Utkin available is a selfie showing tattoos of a Nazi eagle and a Schutzstaffel (SS) symbol on his body.
Bellingcat describes him as “obsessively fascinated” by the history of the Third Reich.
The Wagner group has long faced allegations of Nazi sympathizers within its ranks and has been accused of spray-painting swastikas and SS symbols.
The head of the DNR, Denis Puschilin, presents Lieutenant Colonel Timur Kurilkin with a medal for “destroying 250 Nazis” – which is ironic considering that Kurilkin has two neo-Nazi patches clearly visible on his uniform. pic.twitter.com/JPXzkzts04
— Jimmy Rushton (@JimmySecUK) April 4, 2022
In Ukraine, in April 2022, a leader of Rusich, a Wagner subsidiary, was videotaped wearing the Valknot and Tatenkoph of the 3rd SS Panzer Division.
Yan Petrovsky, a Russian citizen who fought with Rusich, was arrested in Finland on Friday.