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Opinion Did Ron DeSantis really flip-flop on Russia and Ukraine?

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

Anyone who expected Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to echo Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) position on the Ukraine war — that it is “is the single most important event going on in the world right now” — was bound to be deeply disappointed. Republican voters by huge margins see China as a greater threat than Russia, and liberals’ framing of the war as an extension of a partisan domestic “democracy” agenda has undercut conservative support.

Still, DeSantis’s latest statement on the war — that a “territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia” is not one of the United States’ “vital national interests” — was more pointed in its repudiation of Washington’s consensus than many Republicans seem to have expected. (He was responding to a questionnaire by Fox News’s Tucker Carlson.)

If DeSantis runs for president, candidates such as Nikki Haley will make the alternative case for a greater U.S. commitment to Europe’s defense. In a 2024 Republican primary, however, the Florida governor is unlikely to pay a price for his Ukraine position. To the contrary: He’s vulnerable to charges of arriving at it belatedly and opportunistically.

“It is a flip-flop,” Donald Trump declared last week. “DeSantis reverses course,” read a CNN chyron. After Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, when DeSantis was in Congress, he accused President Barack Obama of weakness toward Vladimir Putin and supported sending weapons to Ukraine.

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The charge of inconsistency is worth examining not only because it could affect DeSantis’s political fortunes, but also because of what it illustrates about U.S. strategy. Russia started a limited war against Ukraine in 2014. Afterward, the Obama-Biden administration declined to supply Ukraine with Javelins — the shoulder-launched missiles that stymied invading Russian tanks in 2022.

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If DeSantis is a flip-flopper for taking a hawkish stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2014 and not in 2023, then surely most Democrats also flip-flopped — in the opposite direction — over the same period. The previous Democratic administration denied Ukraine lethal weapons, but this one is sending not only Javelins but also precision rocket launchers, Patriot defense batteries, tanks and more.

There’s nothing inconsistent about this. Last February, Russia launched an all-out invasion to destroy Ukraine’s independence. In the Obama years, many Republicans wanted to send Ukraine weapons to deter such an act. Anti-interventionist Democrats wanted to avoid provoking it.

Both of these stances were defensible. But once the worst-case outcome happened anyway, the premise for both the hawkish and dovish prewar strategies went up in smoke. Whatever the West’s Ukraine strategy was in the 2010s and early 2020s, it failed at great cost.

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One response to that failure is to elevate the defense of Ukraine above all other objectives and seek a total victory for Kyiv. But that’s not the only intellectually consistent position. After all, the war has reduced, not increased, Moscow’s threat to NATO countries as its land forces have been degraded and its munitions eroded. Russia’s attempt to subordinate Ukraine’s government has been decisively repelled — and it is struggling to hold southeastern regions of Ukraine that Kyiv will never surrender.

DeSantis’s use of the term “territorial dispute” was needlessly derisive of Ukraine’s right to self-defense. But it also reflects that the present issue in the war is not whether Ukraine can survive as an independent nation — it has proven that it can — but what territorial boundaries will exist after any cease-fire. It’s an oblique recognition of the success of U.S. strategy since the war began. Though DeSantis decried the (very real) depletion of U.S. weaponry, his statement never rejects arming Kyiv to strike Russian forces in Ukraine.

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The statement does reject a policy of “regime change” in Russia — hardly a straw man when Kyiv and Western elites are advocating war crimes trials of Russian leaders, a practical impossibility unless the government in Moscow collapsed. The statement also rejected sending “F-16s and long-range missiles” to Ukraine, which is consistent with Biden’s policy so far. DeSantis could judge that the U.S. interest in NATO’s security does not require Ukrainian “victory” through strikes on Russian territory, but merely the exhaustion of Russian combat power on Ukraine’s eastern border.

The Florida governor is intensely attuned to the populist turn in Republican sentiment, and that surely influenced the phrasing of his statement. But the insinuation by some in the media — and Trump — that DeSantis is abandoning his foreign policy principles is unsupported.

The intra-GOP foreign policy debate is crucially important for the world’s future security architecture — something Western Europe’s political establishment, which wants Washington’s protection but continually denigrates conservative American values, doesn’t seem to understand. It’s possible that DeSantis’s stance heralds an actual reversal in post-World War II Republican thinking — a collapse of GOP support for a stable world balance of power. A poll last month by Echelon Insights found that Republicans under age 50 were less likely than Democrats under 50 to say the defense of Taiwan from China was in the United States’ interest.

DeSantis’s wariness of deepened American involvement on Ukraine might be a gateway drug to isolationism of the more all-consuming variety. But it could also be an antidote to isolationism if it can persuade GOP voters of their leaders’ discrimination and focus in the use of U.S. military might.

Republican voters have rebelled against an excess of idealism in U.S. foreign policy — the sense that liberals in Washington have grand designs for the world, but no urgent drive to create the hard-power capabilities needed to bring about even basic order and security. Republican Senate hawks put their money where their mouth is by calling for dramatically increased defense spending and arming Ukraine to the hilt. DeSantis disagrees with the hawks on the correct course in Ukraine, but he’s offering an alternative route to equilibrium in U.S. foreign policy by counseling against escalation in Eastern Europe.

That might be strategically unwise, but it’s not a reversal. If Republican foreign policy rigidity allows Trump to win the nomination, however, the GOP’s strategic direction will be unpredictable indeed.