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DeSantis vs. DeSantis?
Has he really walked back his remarks about the Ukraine war?
Many Republicans, alarmed by isolationist comments from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, would like to see him pivot and support aid to Ukraine. This desire aligns them with the press, which tends to see any shift of position, particularly by a Republican presidential contender, as a flip-flop or walkback. So it’s natural that DeSantis’s latest remarks on this subject, in an interview with Piers Morgan that aired Thursday night on Fox Nation, are being reported as evidence that the governor has “changed course,” “reversed” himself, and “sought to toughen his position.”
Don’t believe it. DeSantis has hardly budged. In the interview, he rephrased one of several reasons he previously gave for opposing aid to Ukraine: that the war was just a “territorial dispute.” But he reaffirmed his other arguments against American involvement, and he added further reasons to stay out.
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MUCH OF THE HYPE about DeSantis getting tougher on Russia stems from his comment, during the Piers Morgan interview, that Vladimir Putin is a “war criminal” and “should be held accountable.” But DeSantis didn’t raise that point. He was forced into it by Morgan, who asked the governor whether he supported accountability measures already proposed by others. The words “accountable” and “war crimes” were introduced by Morgan. DeSantis, with reservations, merely gave his assent.
The rest of the hype about a DeSantis pivot stems from his renunciation of the phrase “territorial dispute.” Again, it was Morgan, not DeSantis, who raised this point. And DeSantis, again somewhat grudgingly—he claimed that his use of the phrase had been “mischaracterized”—simply affirmed that “Russia was wrong to invade” Ukraine.
But the bigger story is that DeSantis hasn’t walked back most of his reasons for opposing aid to Ukraine. He has reinforced and added to them. Here are some key points from his interview with Morgan:
1. We should treat the war as a territorial dispute even though Russia has no legal right to the land.
DeSantis noted that the war now focuses on the “eastern border region, Donbas, and then Crimea.” He pointed out that “Russia has had that [land], I don’t think legitimately, but they’ve had [it]. There’s a lot of ethnic Russians there.”
Why does this matter? DeSantis didn’t say, beyond noting that it gives Russia’s military a strong foothold. But his clear implication is that Russia’s ethnic connections to the land, combined with its prior and ongoing occupation, are factors we should consider in any resolution of the conflict and in decisions about whether to continue arming Ukraine.
2. Sending more weapons would unwisely escalate the conflict.
In a statement to Tucker Carlson, posted on March 13, DeSantis criticized what he called President Biden’s “funding of this conflict.” Those words implied that the United States was responsible for perpetuating and escalating the war. In the interview with Morgan, DeSantis extended this argument, expressing unease about “America’s involvement in terms of escalating with more weapons.” He repeated that word—escalation—elsewhere in the interview.
3. Limiting Russia to its current occupation is good enough.
“Those regions in the border and Crimea . . . are likely to be a stalemate for quite some time,” DeSantis told Morgan. “But I do not think it’s going to end with Putin being victorious. I do not think the Ukrainian government’s going to be toppled.” Therefore, he concluded, the war “has been a loss” for Russia.
By this definition, the status quo—Russia occupying one-sixth of Ukraine and continuing to bombard cities—is a defeat for Russia. No cessation of bombardment or further recovery of Ukrainian land is necessary.
4. Russia isn’t dangerous enough to merit an American response.
“Russia has not shown the ability to take over Ukraine, to topple the government, or certainly to threaten NATO,” DeSantis told Morgan. From this, he concluded, “I just don’t think that’s a sufficient interest for us to escalate more involvement.”
At no point did DeSantis acknowledge that Russia has lost ground precisely because the United States and other NATO countries have sent weapons to Ukraine. Furthermore, his stated position on Russia—that it poses no threat to NATO—is very close to Donald Trump’s view that NATO might as well be dissolved because its reason for existence, to deter Russia, is obsolete.
5. Previous DeSantis warnings about Russia are no longer operative.
In recent weeks, press reports have noted that as a congressman, DeSantis took a firmer line on Russia and Ukraine than he does today. That discrepancy raised a question: Is DeSantis just posing as an isolationist, or has he truly abandoned his previous views? In the interview with Morgan, he said it’s the latter. “[If] you look back, all the defense analysts—and me in the past—we overestimated [Putin’s] conventional capability,” he told Morgan.
6. Defeating Russia isn’t necessary to deter China.
Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, and other Republican presidential hopefuls say we should help Ukraine expel Russia in part as a signal to China, which is contemplating an invasion of Taiwan. But DeSantis doesn’t acknowledge any connection. When Morgan asked him whether we should aid Taiwan in the event of an invasion, DeSantis called Taiwan’s security, unlike Ukraine’s, “a critical interest” for the United States and our allies.
7. We should resist Russia economically, not militarily.
DeSantis told Morgan that Putin’s regime was just “a gas station with a bunch of nuclear weapons.” On this basis, he concluded, “the way to hit Putin is to hit him with energy,” specifically by “permitting natural gas pipelines.” Most American politicians agree that undercutting Putin’s oil and gas income is a good way to weaken him. But DeSantis and Trump, like many pacifists, seem to view this as a substitute for arming Ukraine.
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THE UPSHOT OF THIS interview is that DeSantis simply doesn’t care much about Ukraine. He understands that Russia is the aggressor, but he doesn’t view the invasion as a threat to NATO or American interests. He sees Ukraine’s valiant defense of its land as a reason to stay out of the conflict, not to get more involved. And he doesn’t seem to share the concern that if Putin gets to keep the land he’s taken, China might move on Taiwan next.
If I were in the Ukrainian government, I’d conclude from this interview that my country has less than two years to regain its territory before Western support possibly unravels. If I were leading a NATO ally, I’d conclude that if Trump or DeSantis wins the Republican presidential nomination, there’s a 50/50 chance of the United States formally or informally abandoning the alliance. And if I were Putin, I’d conclude that the U.S. presidential election looks even better in 2024 than it did in 2016. Because this time, Russia doesn’t just have one useful candidate in the field. It has two.