Ukraine Bakhmut tank
The Ukrainian crew of a T-64 tank makes repairs after leaving the battlefield near Bakhmut on Thursday. Image Credit: Photo for The Washington Post by Wojciech Grzedzinski

Kyiv: Chinese President Xi Jinping is planning to visit Russia as soon as next week, people familiar with the matter said on Monday, while Moscow and Kyiv both reported intense fighting in the war’s bloodiest battle over the eastern city of Bakhmut.

A visit by Xi next week, days after he secured a third term as China’s leader, would come sooner than previously expected.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has already publicly invited Xi to Moscow without specifying a date, would be likely to portray it as a show of support for Russia’s war on Ukraine.

The sources briefed on the matter declined to be identified given the sensitivity of the issue. China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment and the Kremlin declined to comment.

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 Centre.

Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Sunday the situation was “tough, very tough”.

“The closer we are to the centre 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 defence ministry rejected.

‘No limits’

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 might of the West. Russia relies on China to buy oil and gas it can no longer sell in Europe.

China has been publicly neutral over the war, declining to ascribe blame for it while opposing Western sanctions against Russia. It has offered in recent weeks to broker peace, a proposal met with scepticism in the West.

The United States has said since last month that it believes China is considering arming Russia, which Beijing denies.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said doing so would invite World War Three.

Most reports had previously suggested a visit by Xi would not come until later: the Wall Street Journal reported last month that a visit to Moscow could take place in April or early May.

China and Russia struck a “no limits” partnership in February of 2022, weeks before Russia attacked 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 travelled to Kyiv.

The months-long fight over the ruins of Bakhmut, described by both sides as a meat grinder, has become Europe’s bloodiest infantry battle since World War Two.

Moscow says taking Bakhmut would be a major victory, 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.

Zelensky said late on Sunday his forces had killed more than 1,100 Russian soldiers in Bakhmut in less than a week, and wounded more than 1,500. Russia’s defence ministry said its forces had killed more than 220 Ukrainian service members over the past 24 hours in the Donetsk region. Figures of enemy losses cannot be confirmed and neither side releases regular data about its own losses.

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 mobilised reservists and convicts recruited from prison as mercenaries.

Kyiv is widely believed to be planning a counter-assault of its own later in the spring when muddy ground dries and hundreds of Western armoured 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.

“Bakhmut is no longer a good place to attrit Russian forces,” tweeted Rob Lee, a U.S. defence expert who visited Bakhmut this month. “The attrition ratio in Bakhmut is worse than elsewhere.”