An Old War, a New War - The Upcoming Challenge to Ukraine's Ceasefire

04/30/2015 12:15 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015

May 9, the 70th anniversary of Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, is shaping up to be a serious test for the fragile Minsk II ceasefire in Ukraine.

Thus far, the only stipulations which have been at least partially implemented are the ceasefire, a large-caliber arms withdrawal and a prisoner exchange. These steps are crucial, and the deescalation of violence has certainly led to a decrease in carnage. However, they are also the safest, most noncommittal parts of the agreement: new prisoners can always be taken and guns can be swiftly returned to frontline positions. Minsk's other provisions, such as the reestablishment of pension payments and the issue of partial autonomy for eastern Ukraine, are much murkier, more open to interpretation, and require an actual dialogue over Ukraine's future. And as both sides run out of "safe" steps to implement, faith in the ceasefire, which was never high to begin with, is eroding, and tension is on the rise.

On the ground, ceasefire violations have been increasing, especially in the region around Mariupol, where "there's no ceasefire," as a BBC journalist bluntly described it. On April 20, 290 U.S. paratroopers began training Kiev's National Guard battalions in the west of Ukraine; several days later, NATO reported a large-scale mobilization of Russian troops and equipment near the Russian-Ukrainian border in the east. Both developments have been followed by a spate of recriminations and ominous warnings of "destabilization" by Moscow and Washington.

Pressure is building in other realms. The Kremlin has used World War II imagery from the beginning of this conflict, painting its takeover of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine as an "anti-fascist" crusade. Moscow's propaganda draws deeply from the cult of WWII, whose hold over Russian and eastern Ukrainian cultures is much stronger than it is in America. May 9 offers Vladimir Putin and the separatists an opportunity to continue tapping into their anti-fascist narrative and rally the troops for another assault.

A likely flashpoint for the deterioration of Minsk II isn't along the front lines, but rather in the government-held cities of Kharkiv and Odessa. Both have sizable Russian-speaking populations which, if not openly pro-separatist, at least share sympathies with them and with Russia, and are not sold on the Kiev government. Both cities are steeped in the Soviet cult of WWII; both have had an outbreak of bombings which has rattled authorities and locals alike. Most importantly, both have plenty of WWII veterans.

What makes Odessa and Kharkiv especially dangerous on this May 9 is Kiev's recent legislation banning things such as hammer-and-sickles and Red Army flags, and replacing them with the British poppy as the symbol of victory over Germany. Older eastern Ukrainians are the most likely to cling to Soviet nostalgia and be antagonistic toward the new government. Some veterans may adapt and celebrate May 9 by donning the red poppy; others may not. This is further complicated by the fact that May 9 is more than a victory celebration -- it also contains elements of a memorial day, with tributes and remembrances for the fallen. It's easy to imagine some 90-year-old veteran who had watched his army brethren perish while defending Lenin statues and the Red Flag refusing to put away the hammer-and-sickle and going out to march.

What happens to that veteran may well become the spark that reignites this conflict. It is to be hoped that cooler heads will prevail, and that the elderly supporters of Soviet victory, Ukrainian nationalists, and the police will recognize the need to handle this delicately. If not, a confrontation over a 70-year-old war may lead to a renewal of today's atrocities.