China's leader to visit Moscow next week with U.S.-Russia relations at new low
- China's visit follows U.S.-Russia row over drone crash
- West says concerned Beijing will arm Ukraine
- China denies any such plan, has called for peace talks
- International grain deal due to expire on Saturday
- Attritional warfare drags on in eastern city of Bakhmut
BEIJING/NEAR BAKHMUT, Ukraine, March 17 (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Russia next week, officials from both countries said on Friday, weighing into the Ukraine conflict just as relations between Moscow and Washington hit a new low.
Xi's visit to Moscow is a diplomatic coup for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country has been placed under unprecedented international sanctions since he sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.
Beijing and Moscow struck a "no limits" partnership shortly before the invasion. U.S. and European leaders have said they are concerned Beijing may send arms to Russia. China has denied any such plan, criticising Western weapon supplies to Ukraine.
China's foreign ministry said Xi's visit aimed to deepen trust while the Kremlin said it would strengthen strategic cooperation. "Important" bilateral documents would be signed, the Kremlin said, without elaborating.
China is Russia's most important ally and has been buying Russian oil and other goods shunned by Western countries. It is also a big buyer of Ukrainian grain.
An international agreement to allow the safe export of grain from several Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea expires on Saturday. Russia has agreed to extend the deal for 60 days while Ukraine, along with the United Nations and Turkey which brokered the original deal, have called for a 120-day rollover.
Russia has not specifically said why it is insisting on the shorter period, although it has complained that its own food and fertilizer exports are being hindered by Western sanctions.
China, which has not condemned Russia for invading Ukraine, expressed concern about the war intensifying after a U.S. surveillance drone intercepted by Russian jets crashed into the Black Sea three days ago, in the first known direct U.S.-Russia confrontation.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu presented awards to the pilots of the jets on Friday, Russian state-owned news agency RIA reported, a pointed retort to White House comments that the incident was reckless and perhaps showed incompetence.
Beijing has called for peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv, but Russia says Ukraine must accept the loss of four regions along with Crimea, which it forcibly annexed in 2014.
Ukraine says Russian troops must withdraw beyond its 1991 borders - the year the Soviet Union dissolved - and also that Moscow would use any truce to rebuild its forces for a further assault.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told senior Chinese diplomat Qin Gang in a phone call on Thursday that Kyiv would not discuss peace until Russian forces completely withdrew.
Some media reports said Xi would hold a telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy after his Russia visit.
Beijing has not confirmed the call. A spokesperson for Zelenskiy told Ukrainian media there was still no concrete agreement on whether the president would talk with Xi.
Ukrainian forces were continuing on Friday to withstand Russian assaults on the ruined city of Bakhmut, the focal point for eight months of Russian attempts to advance through the industrial Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine bordering Russia.
Reuters reporters roughly 1.5 km (1 mile) from the front lines could hear the constant boom of artillery and the crackle of small arms fire on Thursday.
Ihor, a 36-year-old soldier at the mortar position, said Ukrainian forces had been targeted by air strikes, mortar fire and tank shelling.
"You don't always check on what's flying over your head," he added, crouching in a deep trench.
Bakhmut has become Europe's bloodiest infantry battle since World War Two. Russian forces led by the Wagner private army have captured the city's eastern part but have so far failed to encircle it.
Russian forces also conducted four air strikes on the frontline town of Avdiivka south of Bakhmut on Friday, the head of Ukraine's presidential office, Andriy Yermak, wrote on Telegram, posting a picture of a ruined apartment block.
"The city is being shelled almost around the clock," he wrote, adding that there had been no casualties on Friday.
It was not immediately possible to verify the report.
Russia denies targeting civilians but says it has targeted infrastructure to degrade Ukraine's military and remove what it says is a potential threat to its own security.
Ukraine and its allies accuse Moscow of an unprovoked war to grab territory from its pro-Western neighbour.
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