As Russian forces continued to pound Ukrainian cities, negotiators for the two sides met to discuss a possible end to the conflict.

The two sides have drawn up a 15-point neutrality plan for Ukraine that, to put it mildly, needs a lot of work.

Financial Times:

The proposed deal, which Ukrainian and Russian negotiators discussed in full for the first time on Monday, would involve Kyiv renouncing its ambitions to join Nato and promising not to host foreign military bases or weaponry in exchange for protection from allies such as the US, UK, and Turkey, the people said.

The nature of western guarantees for Ukrainian security — and their acceptability to Moscow — could yet prove to be a big obstacle to any deal, as could the status of Ukrainian territories seized by Russia and its proxies in 2014. A 1994 agreement underpinning Ukrainian security failed to prevent Russian aggression against its neighbor.

The previous “guarantee of Ukrainian security” failed in 2014 and in 2022. Russia was a signatory to that 1994 security deal, so why should Ukraine — or any sane person — trust Russia to keep its word now?

Although Moscow and Kyiv both said that they had made progress on the terms of a deal, Ukrainian officials remain sceptical Russian president Vladimir Putin is fully committed to peace and worry that Moscow could be buying time to regroup its forces and resume its offensive. Putin showed no sign of compromise on Wednesday, vowing Moscow would achieve all of its war aims in Ukraine.

“We will never allow Ukraine to become a stronghold of aggressive actions against our country,” he said.

The question is how far Zelensky will go to get Russia to stop shelling his people. Would he take the return of Crimea off the table, since it seems certain Putin would never consider it?

Related: Ukraine’s Embattled President Volodymyr Zelenskyy Addresses Congress

Also at issue will be territory captured by Russia during the current conflict.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, told the Financial Times that any deal would involve “the troops of the Russian Federation in any case leaving the territory of Ukraine” captured since the invasion began on February 24 — namely southern regions along the Azov and Black seas, as well as territory to the east and north of Kyiv.

Ukraine would maintain its armed forces but would be obliged to stay outside military alliances such as Nato and refrain from hosting foreign military bases on its territory.

Few national leaders will give back what they feel they won in blood. Zelensky may not have a choice.

The “X” factor in these negotiations is Joe Biden. Biden could pressure Zelensky to make an unpalatable deal just to stop the fighting and give Biden his “Mission Accomplished” political moment. A quick end to the fighting would also begin the process of recovery for the world’s economy — another political plus for Biden.

But Putin cares less about Biden’s political situation than he cares about getting rid of Zelensky. In truth, it’s doubtful that Putin will stop fighting until he sees regime change in Ukraine. The current “negotiations” are, as some Ukrainians suspect, a ploy to buy time for Russia to achieve all of its objectives in Ukraine.

Will Biden blunder into conflict with nuclear-armed Russia? Each day that passes makes it more and more likely.

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