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BBC: PMC "Wagner" could be completely decapitated due to a plane crash

24-8-2023 |

Nine other people were on the plane alongside Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin when it crashed, according to flight details released by the Russian aviation authorities.

They include Dmitry Utkin, who is believed to have given the mercenary group its name.

Russia also says Valeriy Chekalov, who is believed to have been crucial to the group's finances, was on board.

Three crew members were on the flight alongside the Wagner members.

Here's what we know about them.

Dmitry Utkin

The history of the Wagner Group is murky but follow the trail back far enough and Dmitry Utkin's name will inevitably crop up.

The 53-year-old veteran of Russia's two wars in Chechnya in 1994-2000 is believed to have been involved in the private army since its early days in 2014.

The group itself is named after his call sign Wagner. It is seemingly a reference to composer Richard Wagner, who was Adolf Hitler's favourite composer.

In recent years, Utkin is reported to have been Prigozhin's right-hand man, responsible for overall command and combat training.

There are few photographs Utkin but one of those in circulation is a selfie which reveals neo-Nazi tattoos on his body.

According to Utkin's online CV, which appears to be from around 2013 and was unearthed by the investigative website Bellingcat, he served in the GRU - Russia's military intelligence division - from 1988 to 2008. It says his involvement in combat operations led to government awards, and lists weapons skills among his professional qualities.

Utkin became a gun for hire after leaving military intelligence and gained influence in Wagner when the group fought on the side of pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014.

He is also thought to have been involved in the group's operations in Syria and Africa. A BBC investigation in 2021 linked him to documents which exposed Wagner's involvement in the Libyan civil war.

A picture thought to be taken in 2016 shows Utkin alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Kremlin reception, at a time when the Russian government was denying links to Wagner.

Dmitry Utkin - first on the right

Mr Putin has since said the Russian government funded the group to the tune of billions of dollars.

Valeriy Chekalov

Chekalov is believed to be a close Prigozhin associate with business links to the Wagner leader stretching back to the 2000s.

The 47-year-old appears to have been involved in running Prigozhin's non-military business interests, which Western governments say are used to finance the mercenary group.

Chekalov was linked with Evro Polis, a company associated with Prigozhin, which signed contracts for the production of gas and oil in Syria in 2017.

According to the US Treasury, the company was contracted by President Bashar al-Assad's government "to protect Syrian oil fields in exchange for a 25% share in oil and gas production from the fields".

The finances raised from the deal were used to pay Wagner fighters and procure arms, the US Treasury said.

Chekalov is also believed to have been in charge of Wagner's business projects across Africa.

He had been targeted by US and Ukrainian sanctions over his links with Prigozhin, and Evro Polis has also been sanctioned by a number of governments, including the UK.

Possible bodyguards

The other four men listed as passengers all appear to be Wagner fighters.

Unlike Utkin and Chekalov, they do not appear on international sanctions lists and so have not been deemed to be senior figures by Western governments.

Given that we know Prigozhin was surrounded by close protection - and even more so after his rift with Vladimir Putin deepened - they may have been travelling as bodyguards.

The names of three of the men appear in a database of alleged Wagner fighters which has been compiled by pro-Ukrainian activists: Yevgeny Makaryan, Sergey Propustin and Alexander Totmin.

Another man identified by the Russian authorities as Nikolay Matuseev does not appear in the database.

One Russian Telegram channel says it could have been Nikolay Matusevich, a member of Wagner's assault unit.

Aircraft crew

The remaining three people identified as being among the dead by Russian authorities are the pilot Alexei Levshin, co-pilot Rustam Karimov and Kristina Raspopova, a flight attendant and the only woman on board.

Very little confirmed information is available on the trio and it is unclear if they were directly employed by Prigozhin, by a company he owned, or by another firm entirely.

Prigozhin is known to have regularly travelled by private jet, and the aircraft involved in the crash, a Brazilian-made Embraer Legacy 600, is known to have been used by him previously.

Source: BBC