The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ron DeSantis shows how Western unity on Ukraine may crack

6 min

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For months, the consistent response was a shrug or a scoff. Ask establishment U.S. lawmakers about some of their colleagues on the right — those who were expressly calling for a drawdown in U.S. aid to Ukraine and suggesting continued support for Kyiv was not in U.S. interests — and they would tell you the howls of dissent were the concern of a small, noisy minority. Ignore self-styled nationalist populists like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), they insisted. Consider, instead, the overwhelming majority of elected members of both chambers of Congress who back Ukraine’s efforts to defeat the invading Russians.

“My party’s leaders overwhelmingly support a strong, involved America and a robust transatlantic alliance,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told the gathered dignitaries at the Munich Security Conference last month. “Don’t look at Twitter. Look at people in power.”

But away from the halls of power, the picture was rather different. While broad bipartisan agreement may exist on Ukraine among Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Washington, opinion polls show a growing number of U.S. Republicans are skeptical of Ukraine’s importance to the United States, believe the United States has done enough or should do less to back Kyiv, and are open to a scenario where Ukraine concedes further territory to Russia if it means bringing about peace sooner.

And what about people whose power may only grow? On Monday night, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” that would not be considered a “vital national issue,” certainly not on par with the need to check “the economic, cultural and military power of the Chinese Communist Party.” His views, articulated as a statement submitted to far-right Fox News host Tucker Carlson, reflect an emerging consensus among right-wing voters, who seem to have long ago shed the anti-Kremlin animus of former president and conservative hero Ronald Reagan.

An awkward tension lies beneath the West’s support for Ukraine

DeSantis has not formally announced his 2024 presidential candidacy, but his statement amounts to yet another sign that he’s mounting a bid. The Florida governor has made recent trips to key states in the presidential nomination process and is widely seen as the most plausible primary challenger to former president Donald Trump, who has long articulated both sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin and opposition to the Biden administration’s approach to backing Ukraine. In response to Carlson’s questionnaire, Trump said it was time for a negotiated truce between Ukraine and Russia and that he would be willing to let Russia take over parts of Ukraine in any settlement.

This cuts against the standard line from President Biden and his European allies, who have all vowed to maintain military aid to Ukraine against the invasion and insist that they aren’t going to determine for Ukraine what the conditions for peace should be. Biden, moreover, has linked the cause of Ukraine repelling Russian forces to a global struggle between democracy and autocracy. Last month, in speeches in Kyiv and Warsaw, he spoke rhapsodically about backing Ukraine on the front lines of a just battle for freedom and the integrity of the international order.

Other Republicans share the sentiment. On Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) rebuffed DeSantis’s framing of events. “It’s not a territorial dispute … any more than it would be a territorial dispute if the U.S. decided it wanted to invade Canada or take over the Bahamas,” he said in a radio interview, adding that the United States did have “an interest” in the conflict, though not an “unlimited” one.

In a rejection of his former boss, former vice president Mike Pence has cast the Ukrainian fight in almost messianic terms. “We will not forget your struggle for freedom and I believe the American people will stand with you until the light dawns on a victory for freedom in Ukraine and in Europe and for all the world,” he said during a speech in Texas last month.

Ukraine short of skilled troops and munitions as losses, pessimism grow

Such rhetoric is welcomed by Ukrainians and their European backers, as well as a critical mass of the foreign policy establishment in Washington. But it arguably obscures the tougher and more pragmatic conversations that need to be had about the longevity the war, the capability of a depleted Ukrainian military to secure a maximalist victory and the risk of broader escalation with nuclear-armed Russia. In his statement, DeSantis warned against taking any steps that would further entangle the United States in the conflict and trigger a clash with the Kremlin, including giving Ukraine fighter jets and long-range missiles. He also dismissed the prospect of “regime change” in Moscow.

DeSantis’s general skepticism of the Western trajectory on the war puts him in company with a group of far-right politicians in Europe. Some, like former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose party is in the ruling coalition in Rome, blame Kyiv and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for provoking the Russian invasion. Others like French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban want to see a halt in weapons deliveries and an immediate cease-fire, calling for a “peace” that critics say plays solely into Russian hands.

Not long ago, DeSantis was striking a rather different tune. In a 2016 Fox interview that came in the wake of Putin’s annexation of Crimea, then-congressman DeSantis said Putin would have made “different calculations” had the Obama administration provided Kyiv with more defensive and offensive weapons.

And though DeSantis is now positioning himself directly at odds with Biden, there may not be as great a gap between his position and that of the Biden administration as it seems, suggested Stephen Wertheim, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Though Biden said Putin “cannot remain in power” in a speech last year, the White House has since backtracked and is not pursuing a regime change policy and has taken the direct use of U.S. force in the conflict off the table. The Biden administration has also avoided giving Ukraine a whole slate of long-range weaponry that could risk deeper confrontation with Russia and has made clear to Kyiv that the United States may have trouble sustaining its military assistance indefinitely.

“There are real differences between DeSantis and Biden,” Wertheim told me. “DeSantis speaks of the stakes in Ukraine as being considerably lower than Biden does. He seems more open to reducing military aid and supporting a cease-fire” that could theoretically be imposed on Ukraine. But, he added, we should also “bear in mind the limits of Biden’s commitment to the war, limits that Biden’s sometimes maximalist rhetoric can obscure.”