For those watching the steady erosion of support for Ukraine among Republicans, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s recent dismissal of the conflict there as a “territorial dispute” might seem to make political sense. In truth, it was a significant blunder.
But this overlooks the broader political dynamics within the GOP. DeSantis’s chances of winning the party’s nomination against former president Donald Trump do not rely on his wresting control of the MAGA movement away from Trump; it rests on his enticing a large portion of MAGA voters away from Trump and combining them with the large majority of non-MAGA Republicans. DeSantis’s statement pulls him away from that latter group, thereby opening space for a third contender to exploit.
That’s exactly what former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and former vice president Mike Pence have done. Both strongly disagreed with DeSantis and reiterated their belief that backing Ukraine is in U.S. interests. MAGA Republicans will disagree with that, but polls still show that about 40 percent of Republicans agree with that view. That’s a sizable group that will now be tempted to look away from DeSantis.
And for good reason: The statement was terrible foreign policy. U.S. security rests on a firm network of alliances that can bottle our adversaries and ensure that global economic power is under American influence. Our NATO allies in Europe are an essential part of that network, and they believe that Russia conquering Ukraine would be an existential threat. Saying that protecting Ukraine is not a key interest rocks the U.S.-European relationship to its core.
DeSantis fails to understand that a tighter alliance with Europe is essential to winning the fight he prioritizes: the global competition with China. The European Union imported more than 600 billion euros in goods from China in 2022. No U.S. effort to reduce China’s economic might can succeed without European cooperation. Abandoning European nations in their battle with Russia would make them far less likely to go along.
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His statement also displays a massive misunderstanding of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict itself. By labeling it a “territorial dispute,” he seems to suggest the war is over whether the Russian-speaking regions within Ukraine should remain a part of that nation. That is not why Russia invaded its neighbor.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has worked for more than 20 years to bring Ukraine back under Russian control. In 2013, he pushed then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Russian ally, to abandon a trade deal he was about to sign with the E.U. in favor of financial aid from Moscow. That led to the 2014 Maidan Revolution in which furious Ukrainians ousted Yanukovych from office.
Putin made his intentions even clearer with his bizarre statements in 2021 regarding Ukrainian national identity. Putin contended that there is no historic Ukrainian people and that “true sovereignty is possible only in partnership with Russia.” That is why he invaded Ukraine in 2014, seizing Crimea, and that is why he moved again in 2022.
DeSantis apparently doesn’t understand this, meaning he is either ignorant of Putin’s manifest intentions or does not regard them as threatening. Neither speaks well of his ability to lead U.S. foreign policy.
This doesn’t mean the governor is entirely wrong about U.S. policy toward Ukraine. He is right that the United States should not push for regime change in Russia or deploy its own military to help Ukraine. It’s in the national interest to deny Putin control of the bulk of Ukraine, but not to engage in a moral crusade to push him from power.
DeSantis can clean up some of the damage he has created by making a more comprehensive statement. He should explicitly back more U.S. aid to Ukraine and its eventual membership in the E.U. He should also clearly state that the NATO alliance is not a one-way street and note that U.S. support for Europe requires its nations to back the United States in its goals. He should aim to be neither a global crusader nor an isolationist.
DeSantis will not supplant Trump as the undisputed leader of MAGAdom, and he shouldn’t try. His path forward is to build a cross-factional alliance and create a new, bigger Republican Party. The fact that he doesn’t seem to see that should give those flocking to his banner reason for concern.