Thirsting for a bit of good news in these bad times of war, Ukraine's media headlined what it saw as a victory: The return to Kiev of a haul of artefacts from Crimea that had been on exhibit in European cities before Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014.
The return came after a ten-year legal battle in which Russia claimed that it should receive the artefacts because they were made before the 1950s when the then Soviet ruler Nikita Khrushchev "handed Crimea over to Ukraine." Ukraine counter-argued that the artefacts were loaned to a Dutch museum before Russian President Vladimir Putin's troops annexed Crimea.
Well, in every war even the tiniest bit of good news could help divert attention, even momentarily, from bigger bad news.
Though actual and sustained fighting started in February 2022, Russia's war against Ukraine started almost a decade ago when Crimea was annexed. Since then, the fratricidal war has offered no good news for either side. Putin called the war "special operations", implying it would be over in a matter of weeks if not days. Although not as starry-eyed, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky also dreamed that thanks to support from NATO, the biggest military machine in history, his side would quickly emerge victorious.
The bad news that didn't get the headlines either in Moscow or Kyiv is that both Russia and Ukraine have passed what military theoreticians call the "decimation point" when you see that you have lost at least 10% of your fighting manpower.
When that point comes, those who run a war are advised to review the position, adopt different tactics, change some goals and, best of all if possible, look for ways to end the war.
According to the most conservative estimates available, Russia has sustained over 300,000 casualties, including 120,000 killed in action. Since total Russian fighting manpower is estimated at 1.3 million men including Wagner paramilitaries, the decimation point has already passed.
Having suffered over 200,000 casualties, including 70,000 killed out of a total force of 500,000, Ukraine is in an even worse position.
At the decimation point, alarm bells begin to ring. This is because you are forced to dig into your reserves and launch a recruitment drive that would take months if not years to produce the technical as well as fighting and command capacities needed.
At any given time, the commander is able to send a third of his total forces into battle as one third are either on furlough, wounded, or getting retrained, while another third is kept in reserve at short notice to join the battle at short notice. The larger the pool of potential recruits, the better the chances of sailing through the dreaded decimation point.
But here, too, both Russia and Ukraine face growing difficulties. Since the latest phase of the war started in February 2022, almost a million young Russians have left the country to avoid recruitment. Although the federation still enjoys a demographic advantage over Ukraine, the hemorrhage may well intensify.
For its part, Ukraine has witnessed the flight of over 50,000 men of recruitment age, almost half of them since Zelensky launched his much advertised "spring offensive." That campaign is reported to have claimed the lives of over 22,000 fighters, almost a third of total Ukrainian deaths since 2022.
In exchange, Ukraine managed to recapture some 28,000 square miles of the 370,000 square miles of territory lost to Russia -- a huge cost by any standards. By that standard, Zelensky's promise of "total liberation of all occupied territories" could cost over 100,000 Ukrainian lives.
Thus both sides face a dire choice: sacrifice a whole generation of young men in a war that seems stalemated by any standards. The situation is worse for Russia because it has to cope with growing opposition from people in the occupied territories, including Crimea where the Tatar community has suffered a massive crackdown. Attempts to have some locals shanghaied in Luhansk and Donetsk have provoked growing opposition to the point that Russia has had to transfer thousands of people to Russian territory.
The war is also taking a heavy toll on the economies of both Russia and Ukraine. With sanctions and boycotts, Russian foreign earnings are on a downward curve while imports, including some materiel from China, Iran and North Korea, have to be paid for in hard currency.
On that score, Ukraine is in a better position because it gets the weapons it needs on a buy-now-pay-later basis, while its foreign earnings through growing exports of wheat and other farm products cover the cost of its other imports. But how long will Western public opinion tolerate the cost of the war which compounds the hurt it has caused by fueling inflation?
Ukraine has another point of weakness: the loss of millions of its citizens forced into emigration, which means a shrinking economy, which, in turn, causes more emigration.
While Ukraine is certainly losing some support in Western democracies, the words-are-cheap principle notwithstanding, Russia is also losing support and sympathy in the so-called "global south."
Even worse news for both belligerents comes on the home front. Anti-war protests, including by women, are taking place in several parts of the Russian Federation, while draft-dodging has spread, especially in what is supposed to be the Russian heartland.
In Ukraine, too, the initial nationalistic fervor is beginning to ebb, albeit at an as yet not worrying tempo. But the prospect of an endless war, stalemated on the frontline while civilians are killed by missiles and drones, is unlikely to keep the flame of patriotism alive forever.
At the decimation point, one other factor merits attention. This war, which started as popular on both sides -- on the Russian side because it was dished out as a restoration Russian of global status and on the Ukrainian side as defense of the fatherland -- is losing its initial appeal. In the West, public opinion saw the war as a means of keeping the Russian giant in chains, while anti-West forces admired Putin for challenging the American big bad wolf. But those opinions, or illusions, have also lost whatever luster they may have had.
At a decimation point, everyone needs a serious re-think.
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 with some changes by kind permission of the author.