KYIV (Reuters) – Chinese President Xi Jinping could go deeper than before into Ukraine diplomacy as soon as next week, staging both his first trip to Russia and his first talks with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy since Moscow’s invasion.
Several sources familiar with the plans told Reuters Xi could visit Moscow next week, an earlier-than-expected trip in response to a long-standing invitation from President Vladimir Putin. His plans to also hold a video conference with Zelenskiy were reported by the Wall Street Journal, citing sources, which Reuters was not immediately able to confirm independently.
The Chinese foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Kremlin said it had nothing to announce yet. Ukraine’s president’s office did not immediately respond.
The sources who told Reuters of the plan for Xi to visit Moscow declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the issue.
“As a rule, announcements of official foreign visits are coordinated synchronously by mutual agreement of the parties,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “When there is such readiness, we will let you know.”
A visit by Xi to Russia would be a major event for Putin, who portrays the war in Ukraine as a conflict with the combined power of the West and has frequently spoken of his plans to host Xi in the coming months. Russia relies on China to buy oil and gas it can no longer sell in Europe.
But if Xi’s visit coincides with a video meeting with Zelenskiy, that could be an even bigger coup for the Ukrainians, who want Beijing to remain neutral rather than firm up their support for Moscow. Zelenskiy has called on Xi to speak to him.
China has declined to ascribe blame for the war while opposing Western sanctions against Russia. It unveiled a proposal in February for a peace plan, met with skepticism in the West but praised in Moscow and cautiously welcomed by Zelenskiy.
The United States has said repeatedly since last month that it believes China is considering arming Russia, which Beijing denies. Zelenskiy has said doing so would invite World War Three, but also that he believed Beijing was aware of such risks, implying that he doubted it was likely.
China and Russia struck a “no limits” partnership in February of 2022, weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, and the two sides have repeatedly reaffirmed the strength of their ties in public. China’s top diplomat visited Moscow in February during the week of the war’s first anniversary, when US President Joe Biden traveled to Kyiv.
On the ground, both sides described relentless fighting in Bakhmut, a small ruined city in eastern Ukraine that has become the main focus of a Russian winter campaign involving hundreds of thousands of freshly conscripted reservists and mercenaries.
Kyiv announced last week that it had decided to defend Bakhmut rather than withdraw. Russian forces led by the Wagner private army have captured the eastern part of the city but have so far failed to encircle it.
“All enemy attempts to capture the town are repelled by artillery, tanks, and other firepower,” Ukraine’s Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of ground forces who has vowed not to withdraw, was quoted as saying by Ukraine’s Media Military Center.
Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Sunday the situation was “tough, very tough”.
“The closer we are to the center of the city, the harder the fighting … The Ukrainians throw in endless reserves. But we are advancing and we will be advancing,” Prigozhin said in comments released by his press service.
He also said Russian soldiers were providing his troops with truckloads of ammunition. He has previously complained that Russia’s top brass was deliberately starving his men of ammunition, an allegation the defense ministry rejected.
The months-long fight for Bakhmut has become Europe’s bloodiest infantry battle since World War Two, described as a meat grinder by both sides.
Moscow says taking it would be a major success, opening a path to capture the rest of the surrounding Donetsk region, a central war aim. Kyiv says it has decided not to pull out, continuing the fight to inflict losses on a Russian assault force it says is driven by Putin’s need to claim his only victory in more than half a year.
After Ukrainian advances throughout the second half of 2022, Kyiv has focused on the defensive for the last three months, while Moscow has launched an offensive campaign using mobilized reservists and convicts recruited from prison as mercenaries.
Kyiv has signaled plans for a counter-assault later in the spring when the muddy ground dries and hundreds of Western armored vehicles and Challenger and Leopard battle tanks arrive.
The tanks would have a major impact, said Leonid Khoda, commander of Ukraine’s 1st Tank Brigade which is fighting in the Donbas, comprised of Donetsk and Luhansk regions: “Everyone is waiting, 1st Tank Brigade is waiting too. Not long ago we sent personnel to learn to operate (Leopard) 2A6,” he told Reuters.
Ukraine says wearing out Russia’s military now will help its counter-offensive later. But not every Western military analyst is convinced that Bakhmut is the best battlefield to take on the Russians due to casualties on the Ukrainian side.
“The attrition ratio in Bakhmut is worse than elsewhere,” tweeted Rob Lee, a US defense expert who visited Bakhmut this month.
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(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Robert Birsel and Philippa Fletcher)