Dmitri Utkin, a longtime lieutenant to the Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny V. Prigozhin and the person whose nom de guerre impressed the identify of their non-public army outfit, Wagner, was extensively believed to have died together with him in a aircraft crash in Russia on Wednesday. He was 53.
Mr. Utkin’s dying has not been formally confirmed by the Russian authorities or Wagner, however he was listed as a passenger on a aircraft that went down in a subject because it was flying to St. Petersburg from Moscow.
Mr. Utkin, a veteran Russian army officer, was intently intertwined with Wagner from its emergence as a reasonably modest combating group a decade in the past to its evolution right into a brutal, armed-to-the-teeth pressure prepared to do the Kremlin’s bidding from Africa to the Center East to, most lately, the most well liked spots on the Ukrainian battlefield.
However his precise function was a bit murky.
Through the years, Mr. Utkin was at instances known as the “founder” of Wagner, which first got here to public consideration throughout early forays in opposition to Ukraine ordered by President Vladimir V. Putin in 2014, a precursor to the full-scale invasion of 2022. Wagner mercenaries fought alongside pro-Russian separatists within the Donbas area, and have been commanded by Mr. Utkin.
Whether or not he was the group’s precise founder, although, turned much less and fewer sure over time. “Whereas Dmitry Utkin has been extensively introduced because the entrance man and ‘principal’ for the Wagner PMC, there’s ample information suggesting that his function was extra of a subject commander,” a report issued in 2020 by the investigative web site Bellingcat mentioned. Open-source information, it mentioned, strongly advised that Mr. Utkin was “not within the driver’s seat of establishing this non-public military” however reasonably was a “employed gun.”
A part of the problem in understanding his function was that whereas Mr. Prigozhin was outspoken of late, delighting in seizing the highlight and denouncing rivals within the Russian common army, Mr. Utkin was not often seen in public. Bellingcat referred to as him “digicam shy.”
In lots of respects, although, his affect on the tradition of Wagner appeared clear.
Mr. Utkin, a retired Russian Particular Forces officer, was described as fascinated by Nazi historical past. The mercenary group’s identify — and, earlier than that, Mr. Utkin’s army name signal — was mentioned to have been impressed by the composer Richard Wagner, a favourite of Hitler’s. Among the group’s fighters appeared to share that ideology: Historical Norse symbols favored by white supremacists have been photographed on Wagner gear in Africa and the Center East.
Mr. Utkin, who was born in 1970, served with the army in two wars in Russia’s restive Chechnya area and was within the G.R.U., the Russian army intelligence company till 2013, in keeping with a 2020 report from the Heart for Strategic and Worldwide Research. After that he commanded a Spetsnaz particular forces unit and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel, the report mentioned.
However it was as a part of Wagner that he attained notoriety.
In 2015, a yr after serving to shear off sections of japanese Ukraine, the Wagner group turned its consideration to Syria, tasked by the Kremlin not solely with bolstering President Bashar al-Assad within the nation’s civil struggle but in addition with seizing oil and gasoline fields, American officers have mentioned. Wagner operatives have additionally fought in Sudan, Central African Republic, Mali and Mozambique, extending Russian affect in Africa by proxy.
Formally, the Kremlin denied ties to Wagner, however in 2016, Mr. Putin awarded Mr. Utkin army honors at a banquet.
A yr later, the USA bestowed its personal recognition of kinds: It imposed sanctions on Mr. Utkin over his actions with Wagner, particularly, recruiting troopers to affix separatist forces in Ukraine. (Britain, the European Union and Canada additionally imposed sanctions on Mr. Utkin and Mr. Prigozhin.)
In 2022, after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine started, Wagner’s fighters took on a serious function, most notably within the bloody, practically yearlong battle for Bakhmut the place Mr. Prigozhin’s mercenaries finally claimed victory.
However the glory was fleeting.
Mr. Prigozhin grew more and more incensed at what he referred to as the incompetence of Russian army leaders, and whereas he was cautious to profess loyalty to Mr. Putin, he spared no phrases in his denunciations of the president’s underlings. In late June, phrases turned to motion, and Wagner forces briefly took up arms in opposition to Russian troopers, outraging the Russian president.
Inside and out of doors the nation, many watched intently to see what destiny would possibly befall Mr. Prigozhin.
Within the days that adopted, Mr. Utkin stayed by the Wagner chief’s facet. And the subsequent month, video emerged that appeared to point out Mr. Prigozhin delivering a speech to Wagner fighters who had relocated to Belarus. After ending, he turned the ground over to Mr. Utkin, who this time didn’t keep his customary discretion.
“This isn’t the tip,” Mr. Utkin mentioned.