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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Blood Of Bakhmut: Why Both Sides Are Ready To Die For A Deserted City In Donbas

Fighting has been fierce for the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. What is the price of a victory that is, above all, symbolic?

Photo of Ukrainian soldiers prepare a tank for combat in the fronlines of Bakhmut

Ukrainian soldiers prepare a tank for combat in the fronlines of Bakhmut

Pierre Haski


PARIS — The name of Bakhmut will go down in history as one the fiercest, most contested battles in the Ukraine war. Fighting has been raging for weeks, in this city of the Donetsk region, in eastern Ukraine's Donbas. The toll of victims is rising considerably.

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What’s at stake today is less strategic than symbolic — which is not a trifling thing in this type of conflict. There is something about Bakhmut that’s reminiscent of World War I, where men die to conquer a house or a neighborhood only to lose it again the next day. The weapons, of course, differ: 21st-century drones, geo-location, missiles.

Ukraine had so far been reluctant to take the risk of losing too many men to defend positions that were not deemed essential. That strategy has changed with Bakhmut, which became a symbol of the Ukrainian army's ability to hold out, and therefore to one day emerge victorious against Russia. A defeat at Bakhmut would reflect negatively, just as Ukraine receives promises of new arms shipments from the West.

The Wagner Group threat 

Facing the Ukrainian army are the men from the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s "private" army — and a real game-changer.

Prigozhin — a.k.a. "Putin's chef", a moniker that dates back to their shared past in St. Petersburg — created the Wagner group, best known for its mercenary operations in Africa, notably in Mali where it supplanted French forces. The paramilitary group is now fully engaged in the Ukraine war, with thousands of men directly recruited from Russian prisons — under the promise of a clean slate after six months on the front, that is, if they are still alive.

Prigozhin has made it a personal matter. In recent days, he has staged himself in videos shot not far from Bakhmut, encouraging his men. His own, indirect way of criticizing the Russian army for its inefficiency. But to really show his strength, Prigozhin must win Bakhmut — a victory that would in turn cast a shadow on the regular Russian army.

The war, then, spills beyond the Ukrainian battlefield, highlighting the games of power and influence in Moscow.

A Ukrainian drone operator watches as artillery strikes Russian positions

Madeleine Kelly/SOPA/Zuma

A symbol of determination

Over the last couple of days, Wagner troops tried to advance on Soledar, near Bakhmut. Fighting was fierce and, according to Kyiv, the Russians had to give up after sustaining heavy losses.

All this only reinforces the feeling that there is no end in sight for this war.

The Ukrainians do not communicate on their own losses — but they are significant too, and have led Kyiv to send reinforcements back to Bakhmut to help resist the Russian assaults.

The battle for Bakhmut, a city deserted by 90% of its inhabitants, has become all the more symbolic as the front is more or less stabilized elsewhere — with the exception of Russian bombardments of Ukrainian cities.

All this only reinforces the feeling that there is no end in sight for this war. "Dying for Bakhmut" has today become the symbol of each side’s determination to not cede a single inch on its objectives.

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The Last Boss: Messina Denaro's Death Marks The End Of An Era For The Sicilian Mafia

Eight months after being arrested, following 30 years on the run, Matteo Messina Denaro died Monday. The son of a mobster and successor of Sicily's notorious boss of bosses, he had tried to transform Cosa Nostra into a modern criminal enterprise — with only partial success.

photo of Matteo Messina Denaro

Matteo Messina Denaro after his arrest

Carabinieri handout via ZUMA
La Stampa Staff

Updated Sep. 25, 2023 at 4:45 p.m.


PALERMO — Matteo Messina Denaro, who for more than a decade was the Sicilian Mafia's "boss of bosses," died on Monday in an Italian hospital prison ward. His death came eight months after being captured following decades on the run as a fugitive from justice. His arrest in January 15, 1993, came almost 30 years to the day after Totò Riina, then the undisputed head of the Corleone clan, was captured in Palermo.

Tracing back in time, Messina Denaro began his criminal ascent in 1989, around the first time on record that he was reported for mob association for his participation in the feud between the Accardo and Ingoglia clans.

At the time, Messina Denaro's father, 'don Ciccio', was the Mafia boss in the western Sicilian city of Trapani — and at only 20 years of age, the ambitious young criminal became Totò Riina's protégé. He would go on to help transform Cosa Nostra, tearing it away from the feudal tradition and catapulting it into the world of would-be legitimate business affairs.

For 30 years he managed to evade capture. He had chosen the path of ‘essential communication’: a few short pizzini - small slips of paper used by the Sicilian Mafia for high-level communications - without compromising information by telephone or digital means.

“Never write the name of the person you are addressing," Messina Denaro told his underlings. "Don’t talk in cars because there could be bugs, always discuss in the open and away from telephones. Also, take off your watches.”

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