The Prigozhin plane catastrophe wipes out Wagner’s leadership, including the commander after whom the company was named

The list of the deceased includes the firm’s second-in-command, its head of logistics and other senior officials. Two pilots and a stewardess were also killed

Yevgeny Prigozhin
A member of the Wagner private mercenary group pays homage to Prigozhin (pictured in the photo on the left) and Utkin, outside a Wagner office in the city of Novosibirsk, on Aug. 24, 2023 .VLADIMIR NIKOLAYEV (AFP)
Javier G. Cuesta

The destruction of the private plane belonging to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group, claimed the lives of its 10 occupants this past Wednesday. The Russian Federal Air Transport Agency, Rosaviatsia, has published a list containing the names of the people who had allegedly boarded the aircraft, an Embraer Legacy 600 under the registration number RA-02795. There were no survivors. Seven senior members of the mercenary company were on the plane, including Prigozhin and his deputy, Dmitri Utkin. Two pilots and a flight attendant also perished.

On June 23 and 24, Prigozhin engaged in a confrontation with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the rest of the Kremlin leadership. He flexed his muscle by taking the city of Rostov-on-Don and marching his private army towards Moscow. This was done to demand the removal of the incumbent high command. After 24 critical hours, he gave up his mutiny, with a guarantee by the Belarusian president — Aleksandr Lukashenko, a Putin ally — that his security would not be endangered.

Prigozhin’s number two, the enigmatic Dmitri Utkin, 53, also appeared on the list of occupants of the crashed plane. Unlike Prigozhin — known as Putin’s chef — this former commander from the army’s intelligence service (GRU) rarely appeared in public. The name of the Wagner company comes from him, however, since his nomme de guerre was the surname of the German composer Richard Wagner.

Along with other Russian commanders — such as Strelkov, from the FSB, arrested today for criticizing the high command — Uktin participated in the paramilitary actions that provoked the war in Donbas in the spring of 2014, when the pro-Russian protests in Donetsk and Lugansk were dying down. According to the Russian media group RBK, he also intervened in Syria. In 2016, he appeared at an event where Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded him the Order of Courage.

The soldier is also known for leaking a photo of himself, in which various emblems of the Nazi Waffen-SS could be seen tattooed on his body. Despite the fact that the Kremlin constantly repeats the line that its objective is to “denazify” Ukraine, one of the Wagner Group’s units — Rusich — has the Black Sun (another Nazi symbol) as its emblem.

Another occupant of the plane was Valeri Chekalov, who was born in Vladivostok in 1976. Nicknamed Rover — according to the Saint Petersburg newspaper Fontanka — he was Wagner’s third leg, responsible for the firm’s logistics. He was also the head of Neva, a company that had a multitude of businesses linked to Prigozhin’s firms, and director of Evro Polis. In 2017, Evro Polis received a juicy contract from the Syrian regime: in exchange for providing protection to oil and gas facilities, Chekalov’s firm obtained a quarter of the output.

Little is known about the other alleged deceased, although some media outlets suggest that they were part of Prigozhin’s private escort. Among those on board was a 38-year-old veteran of the Syrian war named Yevgeny Makarian (nicknamed Makar), who has appeared on the Ukrainian website Myrotvorets, listed as an enemy of the country. His father was acquitted of a murder trial a decade ago. He joined the mercenaries in 2016.

Along with Makarian were Sergei Propustin — nicknamed Kedr, a member of Wagner since 2015 — and the 31-year-old mercenary Alexander Totmin, also on the Myrotvorets list for having been involved in Sudan’s armed conflict. There is no information about Nikolai Matuseyev, another occupant of the plane.

The captain of the plane was named Alexei Lyovshin. The newspaper Vesti Novosibirsk interviewed an Su-34 fighter-bomber pilot with the same name at an air show in 2018, although it hasn’t been confirmed whether they are the same person. No details have appeared about his co-pilot, Rustam Karimov.

A woman was also on board: cabin crew member Kristina Raspopova, 39, who was born in Soviet Kazakhstan. The morning of the tragedy, she posted a photo on social media, showing her breakfast and a suitcase labeled “Cabin.” According to channel 74.RU, the victim was the older sister of the deputy prosecutor of the city of Yemanzhelinsk, located in the Chelyabinsk region.

A source from that channel reports that Raspopova went to Moscow to pursue her career. There, she was hired by the MNT Aero company. Before the flight, she didn’t tell her family that she would travel with the head of the mercenaries, only “with someone important.”

“I just knew that she worked on a [private] plane that’s rented to anyone who can afford it,” said an unnamed source who was close to Raspopova.

From prison to running a multi-million-dollar empire

Much has been written about the career of Prigozhin since he began to raise his voice at the end of 2022, angered by his great rival, Defense Minister Shoigu. Born in Leningrad (present-day Saint Petersburg) in 1961, he spent nine years of his youth in a Soviet prison for robbery. However, the economic crisis that Russia went through in the 1990s gave him a new opportunity.

Founder of the Concord catering company, Prigozhin met the emerging Russian elite at his restaurants in Saint Petersburg, as Putin was simultaneously making his way to the presidency. He never left the restaurant business, but little by little, he took over the dirty tasks of the Kremlin. He founded the troll factory that stirred up social media and elections in some Western countries. And, in 2014, he created the Wagner Group. The mercenary company would act as a paramilitary branch of the army in foreign operations, whenever the Kremlin didn’t want to officially participate. From supporting the Syrian regime, to aiding in the invasion of Ukraine, to protecting African governments in exchange for their mineral wealth, Prigozhin made millions.

However, Prigozhin wasn’t part of Putin’s inner circle in a way like someone such as Shoigu was. He didn’t even have enough clout to deal with the governor of Saint Petersburg, who frequently denied him catering contracts. His confrontation with the defense minister escalated as Wagner bled out this year in the Bakhmut offensive, when demands for more ammunition went unanswered by Moscow. If, in the spring, he began referring to Shoigu as a “bitch,” his tone went even further in May, when he directly called out the Russian leader for not sending him enough weapons: “And the happy grandfather thinks that he’s doing fine.”

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