Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is dismissing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” and says protecting the European nation is not a vital U.S. interest, firmly putting the potential presidential candidate on the side of Donald Trump and at odds with top congressional Republicans.
“While the U.S. has many vital national interests — securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness with our military, achieving energy security and independence, and checking the economic, cultural and military power of the Chinese Communist Party — becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them,” DeSantis said in a statement.
Trump, in his response to Carlson’s questionnaire, echoed his previous criticism of President Biden on Ukraine and argued that it was time for the two warring sides to negotiate a deal. Trump has said that he would let Russia take over parts of Ukraine in any settlement.
Asked if opposing Russia is a “vital American national strategic interest,” Trump said in a statement: “No, but it is for Europe. But not for the United States.”
DeSantis’s statement comes amid a growing fissure in the Republican Party over the U.S. commitment to Ukraine and the need to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Some Republicans, notably including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), have argued that a sovereign Ukraine is in the long-term interests of the United States. But others in a party that not that long ago revered the anti-Soviet posture of President Ronald Reagan have been less inclined to confront Putin, with some even expressing admiration for the authoritarian strongman.
“Reports about the death of Republican support for strong American leadership in the world have been greatly exaggerated,” McConnell said last month in a speech to the Munich Security Conference. “My party’s leaders overwhelmingly support a strong, involved America and a robust transatlantic alliance,” he said. “Don’t look at Twitter. Look at people in power. Look at me and Speaker Kevin McCarthy.”
Some Senate Republicans pushed back on DeSantis’s comments on Tuesday, most notably lawmakers with military experience or knowledge from serving on congressional committees focused on national security.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took issue with DeSantis describing the first land war in Europe since World War II as a “territorial dispute.” In an interview, Rubio told radio host Hugh Hewitt, “It’s not a territorial dispute in the sense that any more than it would be a territorial dispute if the United States decided that it wanted to invade Canada or take over the Bahamas.”
“This is an invasion,” said Rubio, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. “I think we do have an interest” in the conflict. Rubio said it is “a national security issue,” but “not an unlimited national security interest.”
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a retired Air Force lawyer, tweeted, “To those who believe that Russia’s unprovoked and barbaric invasion of Ukraine is not a priority for the United States — you are missing a lot.”
To those who believe that Russia’s unprovoked and barbaric invasion of Ukraine is not a priority for the United States – you are missing a lot.— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) March 14, 2023
Oleg Nikolenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Tuesday that DeSantis, who served in the U.S. Navy, should know better.
“We are sure that as a former military officer deployed to a combat zone, Governor @RonDeSantisFL knows the difference between a ‘dispute’ and war. We invite him to visit Ukraine to get a deeper understanding of Russia’s full-scale invasion and the threats it poses to US interests.”
Other Republicans, however, have urged disengagement. In a speech this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) claimed that Zelensky “wants our sons and daughters to go die in Ukraine.” She urged the United States to stop aiding Ukraine’s defense, saying “that country needs to find peace, not war.”
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) recently was cool to the idea of visiting Ukraine after Zelensky extended an invitation.
In their statements to Carlson, Pence aligned himself with McConnell, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, a 2024 presidential candidate, in expressing strong support for Ukraine.
“When the United States supports Ukraine in their fight against Putin, we follow the Reagan doctrine, and we support those who fight our enemies on their shores, so we will not have to fight them ourselves,” Pence said. “There is no room for Putin apologists in the Republican Party.”
Haley, who was ambassador to the United Nations under Trump, released her answers to Carlson after Monday night’s broadcast, taking a hard line against Russia.
“The Russian government is a powerful dictatorship that makes no secret of its hatred of America,” Haley wrote. “Unlike other anti-American regimes, it is attempting to brutally expand by force into a neighboring pro-American country.”
The United States has sent more than $30 billion in weapons to Ukraine since Russia launched its renewed invasion in February 2022, shipping an increasingly sophisticated arsenal that includes GPS-guided rocket artillery, infantry fighting vehicles, and one-way attack drones. Biden administration officials have said repeatedly that the United States will support Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” though that comes with the quiet subtext that it may depend on who wins the next presidential election.
DeSantis, who has traveled to states early in the presidential nominating process, said the United States “cannot prioritize intervention in an escalating foreign war over the defense of our own homeland, especially as tens of thousands of Americans are dying every year from narcotics smuggled across our open border, and our weapons arsenals critical for our own security are rapidly being depleted.”
DeSantis said the United States should not provide Kyiv with any military assistance that would enable Ukraine to engage in offensives beyond its borders, ruling out the possibility of sending F-16 fighter jets or long-range missiles.
DeSantis’s comments were at odds with his own words and actions when he was a congressman from Florida.
In 2014, DeSantis voted for an aid package for Ukraine and backed a 2015 resolution that called on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine while authorizing security assistance for Kyiv. He advocated for a “Reaganist” foreign policy stance in a 2016 interview with Fox News’s Lou Dobbs, criticizing President Barack Obama for what he called a lackluster response to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.
“If we had a policy which was firm, which armed Ukraine with defensive and offensive weapons so that they could defend themselves, I think Putin would make different calculations,” DeSantis said.
In an interview in 2014, DeSantis referred again to Reagan and the importance of “projecting strength” and “standing by your allies.” He also said Americans have a “common cause” with Ukrainians. In his comments, which came after Russia had annexed Crimea, DeSantis said the United States was “definitely limited” in its military options to step in but that Washington shouldn’t completely turn away. “I don’t know Ukraine as a whole is written off,” he said.
The statements from the presidential hopefuls and would-be candidates came ahead of the latest monthly meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, a Pentagon-organized gathering of dozens of allies that have supported Ukraine by providing weapons and money.
The meeting will be held remotely on Wednesday, putting Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the awkward position of defending the U.S. commitment to Ukraine despite the tens of billions of dollars in aid it has provided.
U.S. defense officials have urged allies to dig deeper and do more to help Ukraine even as challenges emerge in how quickly U.S. weapons makers can build munitions. Asked on Monday if the Pentagon may need to revise higher the number of munitions it keeps on hand in its stockpile, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks declined to say, adding that the Pentagon’s focus is on expanding the capacity of the defense industry to build more.
Hicks spoke as the Pentagon detailed its next budget proposal, which at $842 billion is the largest in nominal terms in U.S. history and one of the largest when adjusted for inflation. It focuses first on preparing for potential conflict with China, with defense officials expected to continue seeking supplemental budgets from Congress to support Ukraine.
The Pentagon comptroller, Mike McCord, told reporters on Monday that while the new budget is a logical extension of earlier defense spending packages proposed under Biden, it places an increased emphasis on buying more munitions.
“Ukraine has really informed and highlighted the need to up our game here,” McCord said.
Azi Paybarah contributed to this report.