WE NEED YOUR HELP — Support your hometown newspaper by making a donation.
Scott Brinton

Trump’s petty politics threaten international security


Slap yourself. Pinch yourself. Douse yourself with cold water. Do whatever it takes — short of consuming illegal substances — to stay awake. We must all pay very close attention to the frenetic doings in Washington, D.C. Our democratic ideals are at stake. And do not dare tell me that I’m overreacting.

I’ve had enough.

And no, do not dare tell me that I’m rushing to judgment. I’m not. Period.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Sept. 24 that the House of Representatives would launch an impeachment inquiry after it was revealed by an unnamed whistleblower that President Trump had sought “a favor” from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. As most of America knows by now, Trump asked Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, former Vice President Joe Biden.

That Trump did so is not in dispute. The White House — that is, Trump himself — released a transcript of his July 25 conversation with Zelensky, which lays out the president’s big ask — and Zelensky’s response — yes, he would direct his own prosecutor general to lend Trump a hand.

The conversation came only days after Trump froze $391 million in aid to Ukraine — funding intended to help the nation battle pro-Russian separatists on its eastern border with the Russian Federation, according to multiple national news outlets.

That Trump would seek a political favor from the Ukrainian president, while withholding hundreds of millions in aid, is an unconscionable betrayal of the trust both of the American and Ukrainian people.

And it is an international security crisis of the highest order. And no, I’m not being simply ridiculous, as U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham might say. Hear me out.

As noted, Russia is just east of Ukraine. To the north is Belarus; to the west, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary; and to the south, Romania and Moldova. Just south of Romania is Bulgaria, where I served in the Peace Corps from 1991 to 1993, shortly after democratic revolutions swept across Eastern Europe. I have returned nine times since, most recently in 2013.

Most Americans cannot understand the fear of Russia that many, if not most, Eastern Europeans carry with them in the backs of their brains, particularly anyone old enough to remember 1991. Eastern Europeans risked life and limb to secure their freedoms from the old Soviet Union (now Russia) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They stood in solidarity, marching en masse in their capitals’ squares, demanding sovereignty. Ukraine gained its freedom in August 1991, a year after Bulgaria.

That same month, hardline members of the Soviet government attempted a coup d’état against President and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, a democratic reformer, in order to halt the impending breakup of the Soviet Union.

I had been in Bulgaria all of a month and a half, in Bankya, a village of 10,000 a half-hour outside Sofia, the capital. I was in the first group of Peace Corps volunteers — and Americans, period — to enter Bulgaria after the fall of communism. I was studying the Bulgarian language and culture with two dozen or so other volunteers, as we prepared to disperse around the country to teach English as a Foreign Language.

I cannot express in words the deep sense of trepidation and uncertainty the Bulgarians around us felt when they learned of the coup attempt. Would Gorbachev’s government fall? Would the Soviet Union return to its hardline ways? Would Bulgaria lose its newly won democratic freedom to the communists? If so, would the old-school communists “cleanse” Bulgaria of any American “sympathizers”? In that case, anyone who had had contact with an American like me would have been in grave danger of just disappearing.

These were not wild conspiracy theories. They were valid questions based on five decades of iron-fisted Soviet rule.

Thankfully, the coup attempt lasted only three days, and Gorbachev’s government miraculously held. Bulgarians — and we two dozen Americans — breathed a sigh of relief. I went on to complete my Peace Corps service.

That Trump would play partisan games with military aid to the Ukraine, which lives daily in fear of a Russian takeover, is reprehensible. Theirs is not an irrational fear. Russia annexed Crimea, a large peninsula that juts into the Black Sea, from Ukraine in 2014. Annexed is a nice way of saying Russia took it by threat of military force. And Russia has been funding the separatists in eastern Ukraine.

That Trump would inject his petty personal politics into this powder keg, with the potential to ignite a wider war across Eastern Europe, is beyond reprehensible. (We mustn’t forget for a second that World War I erupted in 1914 in Eastern Europe, when Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, triggering a complicated set of alliances that ignited the war.)

Political pundits, liberal and conservative, should stop talking about the impeachment process as a political calculation. Pelosi was right to move ahead with an impeachment inquiry — a thousand times, she was right.

The time to act is now.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.