DeSantis Takes a Mulligan on Ukraine

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) drew the ire of Democrats, Republican internationalists, and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last week when he said that the U.S. shouldn’t interfere in a “territorial dispute” between Ukraine and Russia and that the war wasn’t in the “vital interests” of the U.S. The backlash to DeSantis’s remarks was intense and made it appear that DeSantis was out of step with most of the rest of the GOP and the country as a whole.

While DeSantis may have been speaking to the MAGA base of the Republican Party, the rest of the GOP was less pleased. That makes DeSantis’s walk-back on those remarks inevitable.

DeSantis is no dummy. He knows he needs a united Republican Party to defeat Joe Biden. Dismissing the war in Ukraine as being beyond our vital interests and claiming that Ukraine’s war for existence as a territorial dispute threatened to fracture the party. So DeSantis took a different tack. Claiming that his written responses to Tucker Carlson’s candidate survey were “mischaracterized,” DeSantis told Piers Morgan in the New York Post that what he really meant was the fighting going on in the eastern Donbas region.

“What I’m referring to is where the fighting is going on now which is that eastern border region Donbas, and then Crimea, and you have a situation where Russia has had that. I don’t think legitimately but they had,” DeSantis said. “There’s a lot of ethnic Russians there. So, that’s some difficult fighting and that’s what I was referring to and so it wasn’t that I thought Russia had a right to that, and so if I should have made that more clear, I could have done it, but I think the larger point is, okay, Russia is not showing the ability to take over Ukraine, to topple the government or certainly to threaten NATO. That’s a good thing. I just don’t think that’s a sufficient interest for us to escalate more involvement. I would not want to see American troops involved there. But the idea that I think somehow Russia was justified (in invading) – that’s nonsense.”

Of Putin, DeSantis made it clear that he wasn’t looking to defend his invasion. In fact, he believes Putin is a “war criminal.”

“I think he is a war criminal,” he replied. “This ICC … we have not done that in the U.S. because we’re concerned about our soldiers or people being brought under it. So, I don’t know about that route, but I do think that he should be held accountable.”

DeSantis thinks Putin’s reach has exceeded his grasp.

“I think he’s hostile to the United States, but I think the thing that we’ve seen is he doesn’t have the conventional capability to realize his ambitions. And so, he’s basically a gas station with a bunch of nuclear weapons and one of the things we could be doing better is utilizing our own energy resources in the U.S.”

Jim Geraghty tries to explain the DeSantis flip-flop in terms of playing to his audience.

So, does this mean that as DeSantis and his team were crafting that written response to Tucker Carlson, they just forgot to characterize Putin as a war criminal who must be held accountable? Did he just absentmindedly overlook a need to mention that the Russian invasion is wrong and that Russia’s territorial claims are nonsense?

Or were those, as I had described, remarks that were tailor-made for the Tucker Carlson audience, and now DeSantis is realizing he has some repair work to do with the parts of the GOP that aren’t in the Tucker Carlson audience?

Or, as Geraghty characterizes it, “It’s as if DeSantis had a full page of thoughts on the proper U.S. response to the Russian invasion, and tore the page in half, offering the top half to Carlson and the bottom half to Morgan.”

It wasn’t very adroit, nor was it very smooth. But it was necessary, and DeSantis carried it off fairly well.


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