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Ukraine flap is DeSantis’s first major test as an alternative to Trump

The Florida governor puts himself right in the middle of a growing GOP divide.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and fighting in Bakhmut, Ukraine. (Photo illustration: Kelli R. Grant/Yahoo News; photos: Phil Sears/AP, Evgeniy Maloletka/AP, Getty Images)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and fighting in Bakhmut, Ukraine. (Photo illustration: Kelli R. Grant/Yahoo News; photos: Phil Sears/AP, Evgeniy Maloletka/AP, Getty Images)

Foreign policy is usually dismissed by political analysts as a second-tier campaign issue, especially in primaries, but the war in Ukraine has taken center stage as the 2024 Republican contest heats up.

In large part, that’s because it’s become the first major test of whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis can maintain his position as the top GOP alternative to former President Donald Trump.

The Ukraine issue has been percolating for several weeks now, as different Republicans figures staked out positions for and against U.S. involvement in aiding Ukraine against Russia’s war of aggression.

But DeSantis’s comment this week that the conflict is not a “vital national interest” but a “territorial dispute” set off recriminations from leading Republicans in the U.S. Senate and dominated the political conversation.

“The last time someone in Europe claimed the land of others, and tried to take it by force of arms, was Adolf Hitler’s attempt to build a Third Reich. Those who miscalculated Hitler’s intentions paved the way for a wider war and missed many opportunities to stop him early on,” argued Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on Twitter. “Now is not the time to repeat the mistakes of the past.”

Graham’s position is the opposite of Trump’s, even though Graham has fiercely supported Trump in the past and has already endorsed him for 2024.

Sen. Lindsey Graham at the microphone.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., at a news conference discussing his visit to Ukraine and calling for more military aid for Kyiv on Jan. 24 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

DeSantis’s statement on Ukraine came in response to a question from the right-wing Fox News host Tucker Carlson, a vocal critic of U.S. assistance to Ukraine. This itself raised eyebrows among top Senate Republicans, who are themselves frequent targets of Carlson.

Asked by reporters about DeSantis’s position, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he was “disturbed by it.”

“I think he’s a smart guy. I want to find out more about it, but I hope he feels like he doesn’t need to take that Tucker Carlson line to be competitive in the primary,” Cornyn added.

Like Carlson, Trump has implied the U.S. should not be helping Ukraine. He has also said that he would somehow end the conflict, through negotiating an unspecified agreement.

Other Republican candidates (and potential candidates) for president, such as former Vice President Mike Pence and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, have said that the U.S. must ensure that Ukraine defeats Russia.

“Look, the Ukrainian military has demonstrated their courage and their effectiveness. I believe that as the arsenal of democracy and the leader of the free world, America needs to continue to give them what they need to literally drive Russia out of their country,” Pence told Yahoo News in a recent interview.

Olena Rikhlitska, second right, and a young girl mourn at the open coffin of Yana Rikhlitska.
Olena Rikhlitska, second right, mother of Yana Rikhlitska, 29, a Ukrainian army medic killed in the Bakhmut area, atttends the funeral in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, on March 7. (Thibault Camus/AP)

DeSantis has sought to put himself somewhat in the middle of the GOP divide, striking rhetorical notes that resound with the populist isolationism of those Republicans who are more aligned with Trump and influenced by Carlson.

But DeSantis’s implication is that he would continue limited support for Ukraine.

“The U.S. should not provide assistance that could require the deployment of American troops or enable Ukraine to engage in offensive operations beyond its borders. F-16s and long-range missiles should therefore be off the table,” he said in his statement to Carlson.

“These moves would risk explicitly drawing the United States into the conflict and drawing us closer to a hot war between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. That risk is unacceptable.”

DeSantis’s statement implies support for Ukraine that does not include F-16 fighter jets and long-range missiles, although he has yet to confirm that. He has also not responded to claims by more hawkish Republicans that he is an isolationist, or to accusations from the Trump wing that he is a globalist.

Some critics have insisted that DeSantis’s position was the same as Trump’s, including Trump himself, who claimed that the Florida governor was copying him.

However, DeSantis’s view could also be construed as more in keeping with the status quo with regard to Ukraine. As the conservative radio host Erick Erickson pointed out, President Biden has also “hesitated to send long-range missiles and F-16s to Ukraine.”

A burned-out van stands in front of a series of apartment blocks surrounded by litter.
An empty street and a vehicle damaged by a Russian military strike in the frontline city of Bakhmut, Ukraine, on March 3. (Oleksandr Ratushniak/Reuters)

The conservative columnist Byron York also stood up for DeSantis: “DeSantis's answers to the Carlson questions fall into the broad middle of American views on U.S. support for Ukraine,” York wrote at the Washington Examiner.

Other conservative outlets, such as the New York Post, have been less sympathetic to DeSantis’s stance on Ukraine.

The dispute over Ukraine has underscored how the war there is shaping up as a major dividing line in the Republican primary. It’s one of the few issues where Trump’s competitors have sought to distance themselves from the former president.

The major Republican donors currently being courted by the various candidates tend to be more hawkish than the party as a whole. Many have long since soured on Trump, who depends largely on grassroots fundraising, and are currently weighing their other options, such as DeSantis and Haley.

Then there’s the potential that the Republican primary could affect Biden’s foreign policy objectives. NATO governments pay close attention to U.S. politics, and some European political figures are worried that the 2024 election could fracture the alliance’s support for Ukraine.

President Biden embraces President Volodymyr Zelensky in front of a wall carrying the images of lost Ukrainians.
President Biden embraces President Volodymyr Zelensky as they visit the Wall of Remembrance in Kyiv to pay tribute to fallen Ukrainian soldiers on Feb. 20. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters)

“I call it a geopolitical catastrophe if Trump were to be nominated, because in the campaign, his influence would be destructive,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former NATO secretary general and current adviser to Ukraine, recently told Politico.

All of that is what makes this issue more significant than a run-of-the-mill foreign policy debate.

“Ukraine is turning into a US cultural divide,” wrote Edward Luce for the Financial Times. “Much like wearing masks identified you as a liberal in the pandemic, the Ukrainian flag has become a symbol of woke culture,” he argued, to many on the right.

Polling has shown that Republicans have shifted away from the support they expressed for Ukraine at the start of the Russian invasion.

A recent Yahoo News/YouGov survey found that 47% of Republicans think the U.S. should not be taking a side in the conflict, compared to 45% who said the U.S. should back Ukraine.

Many Republican senators have voiced a more hawkish view of U.S. policy toward Ukraine. But with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in physical rehabilitation after suffering a broken rib in a fall last week, they are currently without their strongest voice.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, made a strong case for limited U.S. involvement in Ukraine.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at the microphone.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., addresses the Heritage Foundation on March 29, 2022, in Washington, D.C., to discuss the conflict in Ukraine. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“There is a national security interest [in Ukraine] … but it is not an unlimited national security interest. And our contribution to them should be commensurate to that, at the same level as our interests are,” Rubio said Tuesday on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

“By the same token, I don’t think if we just stop helping Ukraine that the result is going to be peace. I think if we stop helping Ukraine, the result is going to be a slaughter, followed by: We’d now live in a world where the message would be pretty clear, and that is that if you want to invade a smaller neighbor and take their land, you can do it, and there won’t be very many consequences for it.”

Rubio also took issue with DeSantis’s use of the phrase “territorial dispute.”

“It’s not a territorial dispute,” Rubio said. “Just because someone claims something doesn’t mean it belongs to them. This is an invasion.”