Seven civilians were reported killed by Ukrainian artillery strikes in Russian-controlled areas as the battle for Bakhmut, the devastated eastern city that has become a symbol of Kyiv’s defiance of Russia, raged with no end in sight.
A top Russian official said there was no chance of peace talks this year as French President Emmanuel Macron urged Chinese leader Xi Jinping to persuade Russia to negotiate an end to Europe’s most dangerous conflict since World War Two.
Following talks in Beijing on Thursday with Macron and European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen, Xi said he hoped Russia and Ukraine could hold negotiations as soon as possible and warned all countries against using nuclear weapons.
He did not express a willingness to speak to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, although Von der Leyen said Xi had told her a conversation could happen when the “conditions and time are right”.
China and Russia have declared a “no limits” partnership and Xi has sought to position China as a mediator in the Ukraine conflict. China has released a 12-point peace plan but the proposal has been largely dismissed by the West as China has declined to condemn Russia for invading its sovereign neighbour.
Standing alongside the Chinese president outside the Great Hall of the People ahead of their meeting, Macron told Xi that “Russian aggression in Ukraine has dealt a blow to stability”.
“I know I can count on you to bring back Russia to reason and everyone back to the negotiating table,” Macron said.
There are no talks going on aimed at ending the war, and Dmitry Suslov, an adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, was quoted in Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper on Thursday as saying there was “zero” chance of talks happening in 2023.
Putin says Russia’s “special military operation” was necessary to eliminate Ukrainian Nazis and defend Russia from a hostile West. Ukraine and its allies call it an unprovoked war of conquest.
The war has cost thousands of lives, wrecked cities, driven millions from their homes and destabilised the global economy.
Four civilians were killed on Thursday in the Russia-controlled Donetsk region when shells hit a car park, Russia’s Tass news agency said. Three people died in blasts at a bus stop in Lysychansk, northeast of Donetsk, RIA news agency reported.
The governor of the southern city of Kherson said seven people were wounded in shelling by Russian forces there.
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 Russian forces, has proven one of the bloodiest of the war.
“(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 raging 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 the city as a way of wearing down Russian forces ahead of a counter-offensive bolstered by advanced Western-supplied weapons.
“We are ready, we have to do it, the sooner the better,” Naza, a 21-year-old unit commander, told Reuters outside Bakhmut. “The enemy must be chased away. At the moment we are waiting for the weather to change, the mud is an obstacle.”
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 Oleksander Musienko said Russian forces were “exhausted and cannot maintain the same pace of attacks” as those launched in February.
“It’s clear now that the Russian army’s ability to attack is stalled. And for all their bravado about taking over Bakhmut, it is just not true,” he said in a video commentary.
“The Russian forces are preparing to organise defensive positions. The idea is to bring the war into a positional phase, essentially a stalemate.”