Ukrainian and Russian forces battled in Bakhmut, the devastated eastern city which has become a symbol of Kyiv’s defiance, while seven civilians were reported killed by Ukrainian artillery strikes in Russian-controlled areas.
Ukrainian soldiers in trenches just outside Bakhmut said they were ready for a long-anticipated counter-offensive once the weather improves. Elsewhere, other Ukrainian recruits trained hard for new combat missions.
In Beijing, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen urged Chinese leader Xi Jinping to use his influence to persuade Russia to halt the war, now in its 14th month, and come to the negotiating table.
“China advocates for peace talks and seeks a political solution,” responded Xi, who has sought to position China as a potential mediator but is seen by the West as favouring Russia.
Xi said he was willing to speak to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, von der Leyen said
A French diplomatic source later said China was ready to work with France to push hard for negotiations.
However, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin rated the chances of peace talks starting this year at “zero”.
Four civilians died in Russian-controlled Donetsk when shells hit a car park, and another six people were injured, Russia’s Tass agency said.
RIA news agency said three people died in blasts at a bus stop in Lysychansk, to the northeast of Donetsk.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the reports.
The months-long battle for Bakhmut, one of the last urban centres in the eastern Donetsk province yet to fall to Moscow, has proven one of the bloodiest of Russia’s invasion.
“(Battles) are underway in the streets, enemy attempts to encircle the city are failing. Our command fully control the situation,” said Andriy Yermak, a senior adviser to Zelenskiy.
The leader of Russia’s private Wagner militia, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said fighting was continuing in the west of the city.
“It must be said clearly that the enemy is not going anywhere,” he said on his Telegram channel.
Prigozhin has often complained of a lack of ammunition for his fighters in Bakhmut. But Ukrainian border guard Levko Stek, speaking in a video clip amid explosions, said Ukrainian forces did not sense any “ammunition hunger” on the Russian side.
Western analysts have played down the strategic significance of Bakhmut but Ukraine has framed its dogged defence of what is now a completely destroyed city as a way of wearing down Russian forces. Both sides have suffered huge casualties there.
“Bakhmut is performing the key task of inflicting as many losses on Russia as possible and, most importantly, to prepare for a counter-attack to take place in late April-May,” Pavlo Narozhniy, a Ukrainian military analyst, told NV Radio.
“We are ready, we have to do it, the sooner the better. The enemy must be chased away. At the moment we are waiting for the weather to change, the mud is an obstacle,” Naza, a 21-year-old unit commander told Reuters outside Bakhmut.
Speaking from close to the front line, the commander of Ukraine’s 5th separate assault brigade, who gave his name as Ivan, said: “Those service members that are not on the front line are training.”
Ukrainian military expert Vladyslav Selezniov said Ukraine would be able to defend positions in the more heavily built-up west of Bakhmut as long as their route to the west, the “road of life” for getting supplies in and wounded out, remained open.
Russia says its “special military operation” in Ukraine was necessary to protect its security against what it sees as a hostile and aggressive West. Kyiv and its Western allies say Moscow is waging an unprovoked war aimed at grabbing territory.
France’s Macron pressed China’s Xi to pressure Putin to end the war in Ukraine. Xi has called Putin a “dear friend”, their nations have declared a “no-limits’ partnership, and Beijing has refrained from criticising Russia’s invasion.
“The Russian aggression in Ukraine has dealt a blow to (international) stability,” Macron told Xi, standing alongside the Chinese president outside the Great Hall of the People ahead of their meeting. “I know I can count on you to bring back Russia to reason and everyone back to the negotiating table.”
The French diplomatic source said Macron had also urged China not to deliver arms to Russia.
Von der Leyen said the EU expected China to promote a just peace that respects Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty.
There are currently no talks aimed at ending the war, and Dmitry Suslov, an adviser to Putin, was quoted as saying there was “zero” chance of peace talks happening in 2023.
Suslov, speaking to Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper in an interview published on Thursday, said Ukraine’s counter-offensive was likely to focus on the Sea of Azov and cutting off the Crimea peninsula – annexed by Moscow in 2014 – but played down the chances of it succeeding.
An adviser to Zelenskiy suggested Kyiv may discuss the future of the Black Sea peninsula if its forces reached the boundary of Crimea. However, a top Ukrainian official later ruled out talks about territory until Moscow withdraws all troops.