One of the rare photos of the operational chief of the paramilitary group Wagner shows a man with a shaved head and a killer look. Just above his two collarbones, the same tattoo: the SS logo.
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Dmitry Utkin, a veteran of Russian military intelligence special units, was with Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin on the plane that crashed north of Moscow on Wednesday night.
From official sources, almost nothing is known about this former officer whom Russian media, even state media, already presented in 2015-2016 as the “commander” of Wagner, a time when the authorities denied any link with the group then active in Syria and Ukraine.
A corner of the veil was however lifted in December 2016 when he was one of the guests of a reception at the Kremlin in tribute to the Russian “heroes” of the Syrian civil war in which Moscow was engaged alongside the regime of Bashar al- Asad. He is even photographed there with Vladimir Putin.
Around the same time, his ex-wife Elena Chtcherbinina gave an interview to the Gazeta.ru news site, explaining that she was trying to reconnect with him.
According to her and an investigation in April by the media dossier.center, founded by the exiled oligarch and enemy of the Kremlin Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Utkin, born in 1970, served in the 2000s in the war that the army was then waging. to Chechen separatist rebels and jihadists from the North Caucasus.
According to this investigation, he left the army in 2012 and founded his first security company.
His ex-wife describes to Gazeta.ru a difficult transition.
screenshot | Twitter
“The adaptation was very difficult for him. It bothered him a lot not to fight. He wanted a military career, as a combat officer, and not wear out his pants in an HQ,” he said.
How did he meet Evguéni Prigojine to create what would become Wagner around 2014? Mystery. But the group is baptized after its code name “Wagner”.
Many people see in this choice another proof of Outkin’s sympathies for the Nazis, Adolf Hitler having devoted a passion to the German composer Richard Wagner.
The men of the Russian paramilitary organization call themselves “the musicians”, and some of them sport insignia and tattoos inspired by the 3rd Reich.
The group has been deployed in the Donbass since 2014, Moscow, which has fomented a rebellion in this region of eastern Ukraine, needs trusted men at the front while denying the presence of Russian soldiers on the ground.
Utkin is the operational manager of the group, Prigojine taking charge of the financial aspect and the relationship with the Russian state, he who has known Vladimir Putin since the beginning of the 1990s.
Everything is done in the greatest secrecy.
In barely a decade, the two men and their group have become as famous as they are mysterious, acting in the shadows, while being accused everywhere – Central African Republic, Libya, Syria, Ukraine – of a multitude of abuses.
Initially, the Russian offensive against Ukraine in February 2022 does not change anything.
Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin | AFP
But when the Russian army is forced into retreat in the east and south in the fall of 2022, Prigozhin becomes a public figure, acknowledges Wagner’s existence, and recruits tens of thousands of convicts to fight.
The group leads the assault on Bakhmout, a bloody battle that has lasted for a year, and forges the image of the most effective of Russian forces.
Utkin remains very discreet. He does not appear in videos or post on Telegram, unlike Prigojine who goes so far as to publicly insult the military hierarchy.
This did not prevent Utkin from commanding the respect of his mercenaries and, very likely, from participating in the aborted June mutiny when Wagner took over the Russian army HQ for operations in Ukraine and marched on Moscow claiming the head of the Chief of Staff and Minister of Defence.
On the makeshift memorials that have been erected in Russia in memory of the victims of Wednesday’s air crash, his face is displayed just as much as that of Prigojine.
Telegram channels close to Wagner sing his praises.
Some imply an assassination, while all eyes are on the Kremlin since the air disaster, Mr. Putin considering the mutineers as traitors.
“Dmitri Valerevich Utkin was a Hero of Russia, four times Knight of the Order of Courage, and known throughout the world by his nom de guerre ‘Wagner'”, noted the Gray Zone channel the evening of the crash.
He is “dead because of the action of traitors to Russia”, she asserts.