Almost exactly a year ago, when the last Ukrainian defenders left the shattered city of Mariupol, many analysts believed that the war triggered by Vladimir Putin would be heading towards an end with a Russian victory.
That belief was based on a number of assumptions that have since proven wrong. The first was that the 80-day battle for Mariupol could not be repeated in other Ukrainian towns and villages under Russian attack. In Mariupol, resistance was led by a hard-core of Ukrainian nationalists ready, if not eager, to fight to the very end. Most were workers in the country's largest steel mill and had developed an esprit de corps worthy of military gradation. That combination of reasons for resistance could not be repeated elsewhere in Ukraine.
The second belief was that Russia, having sustained losses in both men and materiel, would be in no position to prolong a war that consumed both in proportions beyond imagination.
Finally, some analysts believed or hoped that the gruesome images that came out of that tragic battle, the deadliest seen in Europe since the Second World War, might mobilize international energies to seek a rapid end to the conflict.
What happened, as some of us argued at the time, was quite different.
The war established what may be called the threshold of pain for both sides. Both Ukraine and Russia learned to adapt to a new rhythm and tempo of the war established between something like "to the last-drop-of-blood" resistance in Mariupol at one extreme and occasional missile attacks of largely symbolic consequence on another. Both belligerents seemed satisfied to show that the war was still going on, even though it went nowhere.
What emerged was a negative equilibrium in which one side could not win the war while the other could not lose it. The outcome was endless war, or war on a no-tomorrow basis. This war resembled type one diabetics that, while, if diligently treated, it couldn't kill it couldn't be cured either.
Such assumptions have lulled the two belligerents and their respective supporters into a kind of torpor offered by hallucinatory drugs that provide solace from acute pain.
Human losses, both military and civilian on both sides, are still deemed manageable compared with the massacres experienced in Chechnya and Syria. The fact that millions of Ukrainians and perhaps 2.5 million Russians had to flee their homes, the former to stay alive and the latter to avoid conscription, also appeared tolerable compared to what had happened to Chechens and Syrians.
On the Russian side, President Vladimir Putin found the war a subterfuge for strengthening his hold on power, crushing real or imaginary opponents at home, and developing an ultra-nationalistic discourse to back his claim to legitimacy. In Russian folklore there are no good or bad tsars. A tsar that loses his legitimacy is no tsar, good or bad.
So, should we expect this war to continue for years, if not forever?
Don't forget that Europe has a history of long wars, the 30-year and the 100-year wars among them. More recently, Russia fought a 10-year war in Afghanistan before reaching a threshold of pain it could no longer endure.
All in all, the Ukraine war is one that almost everyone thinks one can live with, or even profit from it. The Western democracies that back Ukraine see the war as a means of nailing Russia to one place, preventing it from doing mischief elsewhere. China sees the war as an opportunity to strengthen its hold on large chunks of the Russian Far East, both by supposedly temporary settlements of ethnic Chinese and massive investment in agriculture and mining while benefiting from cut-price Russian gas and oil. With Russia pushed aside, President Xi Jinping can cast China as the new challenger to the "hegemonic West" in a new version of the bi-polar balance of global power.
The European powers may end up among the losers both in economic and political terms. The effects of the war are already felt by every household in European Union countries in the form of inflation and supply shortages. At the same time, the level of support promised to Ukraine keeps rising, with major EU members competing with each other by signing bigger and bigger cheques for President Zelensky.
The war could do longer term harm to the EU in a number of ways. The EU summit held in Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital, along with the Council of Europe, was faced with the thorny issue of whether or not to start formal negotiations on Ukraine's application to become a full member of the European Union.
In time the issue could lead to deep divisions within EU, with some members seeking immediate negotiations while others rejecting it. Giving Ukraine exceptional treatment could also anger other applicants for membership, especially those in the Balkans that have been waiting, and obeying the EU's rules, for years, not to mention Turkey, which has been kept out in the cold since the 1990s.
French President Emmanuel Macron, using a bit of sophistry, says Ukraine is "a member of the European family", forgetting that the same could be said of Albania, Macedonia and Serbia, not to mention Russia, which is the current big-bad-wolf.
Meanwhile NATO officials now talk of Ukraine as a "fully protected associate", thus implicitly creating a new category of semi-membership. That is dangerous talk for all concerned. It could give Ukraine the false assurance that there are no limits to support from NATO. It could also create the illusion in others that NATO protection could be secured without membership. Worse still, such talk would be grist to Putin's mill, which already claims he is a victim of NATO "aggression".
Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini, the 19th century Franco-Swiss military theoretician. described war as "a science shrouded in darkness in the midst of which we cannot move with an assured step; routine and prejudice are its basis."
However, he insisted that even before you start a war, you must try to form a vision of how it might end, preferably at a point at which you can claim victory or, if that isn't possible, get out with a minimum of losses.
Right now neither side in this war seems to have any idea of how it might end, while both sides dream of total victory. And that is bad news for the whole world.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article originally appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.