Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned defeat in the battle for Bakhmut would enable Russia to start building international support for a deal that would require his nation to make unacceptable compromises.
And he has invited Chinese President Xi Jinping, long aligned to Russia, to visit.
Mr Zelensky said if the eastern city of Bakhmut fell to Russian forces after a protracted battle, president Vladimir Putin would “sell this victory to the West, to his society, to China, to Iran”.
“If he will feel some blood — smell that we are weak — he will push, push, push,” he told the Associated Press.
Mr Zelensky warned that a loss anywhere at this stage in the war could put Ukraine’s hard-fought momentum at risk.
“We can’t lose the steps because the war is a pie — pieces of victories. Small victories, small steps,” he said.
“Our society will feel tired. Our society will push me to have compromise with them.”
Some in the United States — including former president and 2024 candidate Donald Trump — have questioned whether Washington should continue to supply Ukraine with billions of dollars in military aid and Mr Zelensky worries the war could be impacted by shifting political forces in Washington.
“The United States really understands that if they stop helping us, we will not win,” he said.
He extended an invitation to Ukraine to Mr Xi.
“We are ready to see him here,” he said. “I want to speak with him. I had contact with him before full-scale war. But during all this year, more than one year, I didn’t have.”
China, economically and politically aligned toward Russia across many decades, has provided Mr Putin diplomatic cover by staking out an official position of neutrality in the war.
Mr Xi visited Putin in Russia last week, raising the prospect that Beijing might be ready to provide Moscow with weapons and ammunition but the trip ended without any such announcement.
While Mr Zelensky acknowledged the war has “changed us”, he said it has made his society stronger.
“It could’ve gone one way, to divide the country, or another way — to unite us,” he said. “I’m thankful to everybody — every single partner, our people, thank God, everybody — that we found this way in this critical moment for the nation.
“Finding this way was the thing that saved our nation, and we saved our land. We are together.”
Meanwhile, Russia’s Gazprom was increasing gas supplies to China and expected to soon reach the maximum planned level through a Siberian pipeline, its chairman said on Wednesday.
The news highlights Beijing’s importance as Russia’s top export market in the face of western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine.
Gazprom is negotiating with China over a possible additional supply project across neighbouring Mongolia, Viktor Zubkov said.