In Prigozhin’s shadow, the Wagner Group leader who stays out of the spotlight

Click to play video: 'Wagner Group chief Prigozhin reportedly killed in plane crash'
Wagner Group chief Prigozhin reportedly killed in plane crash
WATCH: Wagner Group chief Prigozhin reportedly killed in plane crash – Aug 23, 2023

Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s tirades on social media and his insurrection against Russian military leaders have made him the face of the Wagner Group.

But to get things done, he relies on Dmitry Utkin, the veteran military officer who oversees Wagner’s operations across the continents.

Prigozhin is an oligarch with political aspirations, but Utkin has the bio of a Soldier of Fortune cover boy: Russian special forces, both Chechen wars, and Syria.

“He’s in the background making the organization actually run,” said Prof. Dani Belo of Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. “Prigozhin can’t deliver the actual operational and tactical level stuff.”

Indeed, the European Union sanctions against the Wagner Group name Utkin as the actual leader, while Prigozhin is described simply as the financier.

Tank with the flag of the Wagner Group, Rostov-on-Don, Russia, June 24, 2023. (AP Photo).

Despite his central role in Wagner and command of its field operations, Utkin yields the spotlight to Prighozin — and for good reason.

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With the face of a horror movie villain, Nazi SS tattoos on each shoulder and documented record of war crimes, he’s not exactly frontman material.

“He’s a terrible optic,” said Jason M. Blazakis, senior research fellow at The Soufan Center and the co-author of a recent report on Wagner.

Wagner faces an uncertain future after turning against Russia’s military leaders and sending tanks toward Moscow before standing down on the weekend.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to absorb Wagner into his regular forces, but from his exile in Belarus, Prigozhin will likely try to maintain his control.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group in Moscow on April 8, 2023. (AP Photo).

To do that, he will have to rely on Utkin, said Catrina Doxsee, an associate director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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“Utkin will be instrumental in trying to shore up different parts of the Wagner network so that it can remain under Prigozhin’s control,” Doxsee said.

He will have to keep Wagner personnel loyal to Prigozhin and reassure its partners around the world that nothing has changed, that everything is business as usual.

“Those are all things that broadly need to be done, and particularly given Utkin’s role as a trusted insider supporting Prigozhin right at the top, I would speculate that he will play a major role.”

Who is Dmitry Utkin?

Utkin, 53, is from Asbest, a town in Russia’s Ural mountains named after another killer: the carcinogenic mineral asbestos that is its main industry.

According to a report by the U.S. think tank Soufan Center, he “is festooned with numerous Nazi tattoos, including a swastika, a Nazi eagle, and SS lightning bolts.”

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Photo posted on Telegram channel linked to Dmitry Utkin. Telegram

A lieutenant colonel in the GRU military intelligence service, he was deployed twice to Chechnya, where Russia brutally quashed uprisings.

Wagner was formed in 2014 and is said to have been named after Utkin’s army call sign, a tribute to one of Hitler’s favourite composers. Wagner also goes by the name the Musicians.

The European Union lists Utkin as Wagner’s founder, “responsible for coordinating and planning operations for the deployment” of its mercenaries.

Wagner’s first mission was in Ukraine, where it helped Putin swallow up parts of the east while Kyiv was in disarray as pro-democracy activists were overthrowing their pro-Russian president.

Wagner went on to recruit and train private military operatives who were sent “to conflict zones around the world to fuel violence, loot natural resources and intimidate civilians,” according to the EU.

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Graphic from Special Report, Wagner Group: The Evolution of a Private Army, Soufan Center, June 2023. Soufan Center

Like a warlord, Utkin used fear to maintain power. In Homs, Syria, in June 2017, he gave the order to beat a deserter to death, and to film the act.

“The worst of the worst in terms of the kind of behaviour he demonstrates on the battlefield, in terms of not respecting things like the Geneva conventions,” Blazakis said.

The tactic was repeated in Ukraine, where a video showed a Wagner mercenary accused of switching sides in the war being killed with a sledgehammer.

In Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, the Central African Republic and elsewhere, Wagner forces have been blamed for torture and executions.

Click to play video: 'Russia rebellion: Putin says Prigozhin earned a fortune, Wagner group was fully supported by state'
Russia rebellion: Putin says Prigozhin earned a fortune, Wagner group was fully supported by state

Although a business on paper, Wagner is an arm of the Russian government, used to conduct operations, even as the Kremlin denied any involvement.

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That fiction collapsed following the weekend uprising when Putin reportedly admitted Russia had been financing Wagner to the tune of $1 billion just in the past year.

The Uprising

Utkin’s role in the Wagner mutiny remains unknown — though there have been reports he was in a tank leading the charge towards Moscow.

As one of Prigozhin’s most trusted and capable loyalists, it stands to reason he was involved, Blazakis said. “He would have had to have played a role.”

His whereabouts remain unknown. He surfaced in a Telegram post this week, boasting that Wagner was the world’s foremost private army.

“We are ready for World War III,” he wrote.

With Prigozhin banished to Belarus, where the pro-Russian president has offered a base to Wagner, Utkin is critical to the survival of the mercenary force.

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“Prigozhin needs Utkin if the Wagner group is going to remain relevant, particularly in places where it’s deployed overseas,” Blazakis said.

But that will depend on what happens in the coming weeks, whether he will join Prigozhin in Minsk or disappear and keep his trademark low profile, he said.

“To me, he is an individual who has a big target on his back because he has been labelled a traitor, and he has to walk a very fine line,” Balazakis added.

A new Wagner base in Belarus may be no more than a ruse designed to keep the conspirators in one place so they can be monitored, he said.

Saddam Hussein did the same with the Iranian Mujahedin-e-Kalq, assigning them to Camp Ashraf, which was more of a prison than a headquarters.

“When you have a threat, it’s great to keep them in one spot,” said Blazakis, who will speak about Wagner at an Organization for Security and Cooperation in European meeting in Vancouver next week.

Click to play video: 'Wagner rebellion shows ‘weakness’ of Russian regime: Stoltenberg'
Wagner rebellion shows ‘weakness’ of Russian regime: Stoltenberg

Barely a week after the uprising, there are a lot of unknowns, and the information coming out of Russia and Belarus is not necessarily to be trusted, Doxsee said.

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“This could be some deception,” she said. “We don’t know what Prigozhin’s ultimate objective is, how long he’ll even stay in Belarus. We don’t know if any of this could be kind of manufactured and misleading to hide other objectives.”

What happens next will depend on whether Wagner personnel join Prigozhin in Belarus, join the Russian army or go home. Whether Wagner even has a future is uncertain.

“Even though this is over, it’s not over,” Belo said.

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