The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ron DeSantis’s pandering on Ukraine is dangerously wrong

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signs books in Des Moines on March 10. (Rachel Mummey for The Washington Post)
5 min

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is dangerously wrong to say that Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is a mere “territorial dispute” and that the United States lacks a vital interest in the outcome. The former Navy lawyer should know better than to peddle appeasement, but he’s pandering to his party’s isolationist wing by mimicking former president Donald Trump ahead of an all-but-declared bid for the GOP’s 2024 nomination.

“Peace should be the objective,” Mr. DeSantis wrote in answers to a questionnaire from Fox News host Tucker Carlson. If Mr. DeSantis’s goal is peace, letting Russia run roughshod will mean less of it. This all but assures more conflict down the road in a more dangerous and unstable world. History leaves little doubt.

Supporting Ukraine is squarely in America’s national interest. Turning inward would invite a power vacuum that Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Pyongyang and too many others would be all too happy to fill. China is watching. Taiwan becomes more vulnerable if Russia gets away with annexing large swaths of a neighboring sovereign country. Mr. DeSantis is also turning his back on decades of Republican doctrine, going back to Ronald Reagan, that argues the United States has an essential stake in supporting democracy around the world.

Other potential Republican contenders offer a healthy contrast with — not an echo of — Mr. Trump. Former vice president Mike Pence knows Mr. Carlson’s views on Ukraine but responded unequivocally to his survey. “We support those who fight our enemies on their shores, so we will not have to fight them ourselves,” Mr. Pence wrote. “There is no room for Putin apologists in the Republican Party.”

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Others also replied that helping Ukraine is in the national interest: “If Russia wins, there is no reason to believe it will stop at Ukraine,” wrote former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley. Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) says “degrading the Russian military is in our vital national interest.” Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie called this “a proxy war being waged by Russia’s ally China against the United States.”

But Mr. DeSantis’s projection of weakness makes it harder for leading GOP voices such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) to say on the world stage, as he did in Munich last month, that reports about weakening Republican support for Ukraine have been greatly exaggerated. “Don’t look at Twitter. Look at people in power,” Mr. McConnell implored.

Marc Thiessen

counterpointWhat Pete Buttigieg could learn from Ron DeSantis

Before he apparently caught the presidential fever, Mr. DeSantis appeared to understand the stakes. After Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, Mr. DeSantis was an outspoken advocate of sending both defensive and offensive weapons to Ukraine. “They’re not asking us to fight … for them,” he said in a radio interview. During a Fox News appearance in 2015, he explained how Russian President Vladimir Putin was emboldened by American weakness. “If we had a policy which was firm,” he said, “Putin would make different calculations.”

Mr. DeSantis described himself in 2017 as a student of “the Reagan school that’s tough on Russia” and criticized President Barack Obama for not offering lethal aid, which Mr. DeSantis called a grave mistake. As a congressman, he voted to impose sanctions on Russian officials and provide economic assistance to Ukraine, and even backed an amendment to a defense bill that would have blocked the implementation of a nuclear weapons treaty until all Russian forces left Ukrainian territory.

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More recently, Mr. DeSantis tried to avoid getting pinned down on his position until he could assess which direction the political wind was blowing. When a journalist for the Times of London tried a few weeks ago to pry him for specifics, the governor bristled: “Perhaps you should cover some other ground? I think I’ve said enough.”

Mr. DeSantis — presumably with the benefit of polling — is now following what he might perceive to be the easiest political path to peel away supporters of Mr. Trump. He’s telling Mr. Carlson and his viewers what many might want to hear. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last month showed that 50 percent of Republicans think the United States is doing “too much” to support Ukraine, up from 18 percent last April.

Mr. DeSantis betrays the hollowness of his rhetoric about fighting for “freedom” by turning his back on the most inspiring freedom fighters in the world today. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited Mr. DeSantis on Tuesday to visit the front lines to see for himself why the Ukrainians’ fight is our fight. He should take Ukraine up on the offer.

The wobbliness of the two Republican front-runners for president raises the stakes for Ukraine’s counteroffensive this spring, which is all the more reason for Western leaders to rush needed equipment to Ukraine and expedite the necessary training. Absent substantial progress, Mr. Putin will calculate that Western resolve will waver further, and he might be right; other Republican officeholders will be tempted to follow Mr. DeSantis if they sense the war has settled into stalemate.

As things stand, the 2024 presidential election is already shaping up to become one of the biggest battles in Ukraine’s war for survival.

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