Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has sharply broken with Republicans who are determined to defend Ukraine against Russia’s invasion, saying in a statement made public on Monday night that protecting the European nation’s borders is not a vital U.S. interest and that policymakers should instead focus attention at home.
The statement from Mr. DeSantis, who is seen as an all but declared presidential candidate for the 2024 campaign, puts him in line with the front-runner for the G.O.P. nomination, former President Donald J. Trump.
The venue Mr. DeSantis chose for his statement on a major foreign policy question revealed almost as much as the substance of the statement itself. The statement was broadcast on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” on Fox News. It was in response to a questionnaire that the host, Mr. Carlson, sent last week to all major prospective Republican presidential candidates, and is tantamount to an acknowledgment by Mr. DeSantis that a candidacy is in the offing.
On Mr. Carlson’s show, Mr. DeSantis separated himself from Republicans who say the problem with Mr. Biden’s Ukraine policy is that he’s not doing enough. Mr. DeSantis made clear he thinks Mr. Biden is doing too much, without a clearly defined objective, and taking actions that risk provoking war between the U.S. and Russia.
Mr. Carlson is one of the most ardent opponents of U.S. involvement in Ukraine. He has called President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine a corrupt “antihero” and mocked him for dressing “like the manager of a strip club.”
“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,” Mr. DeSantis said in a statement that Mr. Carlson read aloud on his show.
Mr. DeSantis’s views on Ukraine policy now align with Mr. Trump’s. The former president also answered Mr. Carlson’s questionnaire.
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Mr. Trump repeated a frequent riff, saying that “both sides are weary and ready to make a deal” and that the “death and destruction must end now.” Mr. Trump has already said he would let Russia “take over” parts of Ukraine in a negotiated deal.
The position taken by Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Trump is at odds with the passionate support for defending Ukraine demonstrated by some other potential G.O.P. candidates, including former Vice President Mike Pence, former Ambassador Nikki Haley, former Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. It is also sharply at odds with most Republican senators, including Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader.
Mr. Pence has cast Ukraine’s struggle in a religious light, quoting Bible verses in a recent speech he gave at the University of Texas at Austin to mark the first anniversary of President Vladimir P. Putin’s invasion.
“Never forget, the light does shine in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it,” said Mr. Pence, standing at a lectern with American and Ukrainian flags behind him, and addressing the Ukrainian people.
“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,” Mr. Pence added. “So help us God.”
Republican hawks, including Mr. Pence and Ms. Haley, an ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration, have framed the fight to defend Ukraine as a fight about “freedom.” Mr. McConnell has made similar points, casting the battle as one to defend the post-World War II international security order. All have pushed President Biden to do more — to send more lethal weapons and faster — to help Ukraine drive Russia from its territory.
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Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Trump have rejected such appeals. And their view is growing in popularity among House Republicans and Republican voters, who are souring quickly on U.S. efforts to help Ukraine fight Russia.
A January poll from the Pew Research Center showed that 40 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters thought the U.S. was giving too much support to Ukraine. Last March, the month after Mr. Putin invaded, the proportion of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who held this view was only 9 percent.
Back in 2014 and 2015, when Mr. Putin was in the initial stage of his invasion of Ukraine by annexing Crimea, Mr. DeSantis sounded like a conventional Republican hawk. He attacked then-President Obama for not doing enough — just as many Republicans are today criticizing President Biden.
“We in the Congress have been urging the president, I’ve been, to provide arms to Ukraine,” Mr. DeSantis said in an interview with the conservative talk radio host Bill Bennett in June 2015, unearthed by CNN.
“They want to fight their good fight. They’re not asking us to fight it for them. And the president has steadfastly refused. And I think that that’s a mistake.”
But these anti-Russia views are less popular with today’s G.O.P. base, which has been conditioned over the past seven years by Mr. Trump and influential media figures such as Mr. Carlson, who have questioned why the U.S. should view Mr. Putin as a threat to America.
And Mr. DeSantis’s statement to Mr. Carlson channeled these new currents.
“The Biden administration’s virtual ‘blank-check’ funding of this conflict for ‘as long as it takes,’ without any defined objectives or accountability, distracts from our country’s most pressing challenges,” he said.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are increasingly using this “blank check” line as a safe position to criticize Mr. Biden without seeming to abandon Ukraine. But Mr. DeSantis went further — making clear he does not believe the defense of Ukraine should be a priority for an American president and ruling out specific weapons.
“F-16s and long-range missiles should therefore be off the table,” he added. “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.”
Mr. DeSantis’s statement dripped with sarcastic contempt for policymakers who believe the only way to stop the Ukrainian people’s suffering is to remove Mr. Putin from power.
“A policy of ‘regime change’ in Russia (no doubt popular among the D.C. foreign policy interventionists) ,” Mr. DeSantis said, “would greatly increase the stakes of the conflict, making the use of nuclear weapons more likely. Such a policy would neither stop the death and destruction of the war, nor produce a pro-American, Madisonian constitutionalist in the Kremlin. History indicates that Putin’s successor, in this hypothetical, would likely be even more ruthless. The costs to achieve such a dubious outcome could become astronomical.”
Mr. DeSantis added, “We 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.”
Until now, Mr. DeSantis, who has yet to formally announce he’s running for president, has largely avoided talking in specifics about Ukraine since Mr. Putin’s large-scale 2022 invasion. For a leader who takes pride in being aggressively proactive and keeping his opponents on the run, he has been caught flat-footed at times during his recent book tour as reporters have pressed him on the most important question in foreign policy.
He flashed irritation at a reporter for The Times of London who pushed Mr. DeSantis on how he proposed Ukraine should be handled differently, given he was attacking Mr. Biden as “weak on the world stage” and failing at deterrence.
“Perhaps you should cover some other ground?” Mr. DeSantis said. “I think I’ve said enough.”
Republican internationalists and hawkish elements within the party’s donor class were alarmed by that interview and another recent clip on Fox News in which Mr. DeSantis briefly signaled — in a way that was open to multiple interpretations — that he questioned the extent to which defending Ukraine was in America’s national interest. But they remained hopeful that Mr. DeSantis would return to their side.
In a Feb. 23 Wall Street Journal column, the influential conservative writer Kimberley A. Strassel all but pleaded with Mr. DeSantis to split from Mr. Trump, who she said was part of a “G.O.P. surrender caucus” on Ukraine. She framed Ukraine’s war with Russia as a major national security question for Mr. DeSantis to answer. Ms. Strassel called it the “G.O.P. field’s first test.”