Florida Governor Ron DeSantis this week called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” and condemned his invasion of Ukraine, a week after coming under criticism for remarks that seemed to advocate a reduction in U.S. support for Ukrainian forces.
DeSantis, widely expected to announce his candidacy for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination later this year, had previously described the war in Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” that did not represent a “vital national interest” of the United States.
The remarks earned him immediate condemnation from many, including multiple long-serving Republicans in Congress, even though support for continued U.S. aid to Ukraine is waning among a significant portion of the Republican electorate.
Claims he was mischaracterized
In an interview with British journalist Piers Morgan scheduled to stream Thursday evening on Fox Nation, DeSantis said his comments — particularly those that seemed to dismiss the war as a territorial dispute — were “mischaracterized.”
Morgan, who previewed the interview in a New York Post column on Wednesday, quoted the Florida governor’s explanation for his comment at length.
“When I asked him specifically if he regretted using the phrase ‘territorial dispute,’ DeSantis replied, ‘Well, I think it’s been mischaracterized. Obviously, Russia invaded [last year] — that was wrong. They invaded Crimea and took that in 2014 — that was wrong.
“ ‘What I’m referring to is where the fighting is going on now, which is that eastern border region Donbas, and then Crimea, and you have a situation where Russia has had that. I don’t think legitimately, but they had. There’s a lot of ethnic Russians there.’”
According to Morgan, DeSantis went on to say why he thinks Russia is not the threat that the Biden administration has portrayed: “I think the larger point is, OK, Russia is not showing the ability to take over Ukraine, to topple the government or certainly to threaten NATO. That’s a good thing.”
The Biden administration has characterized support for Ukraine as forestalling deeper U.S. involvement in a broader conflict.
DeSantis told Morgan he sees it differently: “I just don’t think that’s a sufficient interest for us to escalate more involvement. I would not want to see American troops involved there. But the idea that I think somehow Russia was justified [in invading] — that’s nonsense.”
‘A gas station’ with nuclear weapons
Also in the interview, DeSantis ridiculed Russia’s high dependence on fossil fuel exports and said the country does not have the capacity to act on Putin’s seeming plan to reconstitute the former Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.
“I think he’s got grand ambitions,” DeSantis said of Putin. “I think he’s hostile to the United States, but I think the thing that we’ve seen is he doesn’t have the conventional capability to realize his ambitions. And so, he’s basically a gas station with a bunch of nuclear weapons, and one of the things we could be doing better is utilizing our own energy resources in the U.S.”
DeSantis’ comments were reminiscent of those of the late John McCain, who was a Republican senator and presidential candidate. Famously hawkish on Russia, he once derided the nation as “a gas station masquerading as a country.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in an interview with the editors of The Atlantic magazine, replied to DeSantis last week with an argument that America’s investment in his country’s defense is preventing a broader conflict that could pull in the U.S. and its NATO allies.
“If we will not have enough weapons, that means we will be weak. If we will be weak, they will occupy us,” Zelenskyy said. “If they occupy us, they will be on the borders of Moldova and they will occupy Moldova. When they have occupied Moldova, they will [travel through] Belarus and they will occupy Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
“That’s three Baltic countries which are members of NATO,” he added. “They will occupy them. Of course [the Balts] are brave people, and they will fight. But they are small. And they don’t have nuclear weapons. So they will be attacked by Russians because that is the policy of Russia, to take back all the countries which have been previously part of the Soviet Union.”
Zelenskyy’s assertions aside, many foreign policy experts are dubious about the likelihood of Russia choosing to invade any countries that are under the protection of NATO’s mutual defense agreement.
DeSantis’ move to clarify his position on Ukraine highlights a difficulty that any Republican presidential candidate is likely to face on the issue because of a deepening divide within the party.
For Republicans, said William A. Galston, a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, “finding a tenable path on Ukraine is very difficult, because the party is divided between a traditionalist wing and a populist wing on this issue.”
“The traditionalist view is that the United States, for reasons having to do with both its interests and values, is required to stand up to aggression, such as what Russia has unleashed on Ukraine, and to support indirectly, and in some cases directly, the military effort to oppose it,” Galston told VOA.
“The populist wing of the party is taking the position that this fight is none of our business, and more generally, that the interests of the United States are best served by staying out of foreign entanglements, particularly military entanglements, to the greatest extent possible,” he said.
At the moment, the divide is most visible when comparing the positions of the party’s two leading presidential candidates with those of its foreign policy veterans in Congress.
Both former President Donald Trump and DeSantis have expressed doubts about whether it is in U.S. interests to continue supporting Ukraine. In a recent Monmouth University poll, the two men received 80% of support — 44% for Trump and 36% for DeSantis — when prospective GOP voters were asked whom they support for the party’s presidential nomination.
In Congress, though, prominent Republican voices have offered unwavering support for Ukraine.
“I think the majority opinion among Senate Republicans is that the United States has a vital national security interest there in stopping Russian aggression,” John Thune, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, told reporters last week.