Yesterday Florida Governor Ron DeSantis provided a statement to Tucker Carlson, saying that protecting Ukraine’s borders is not a vital American interest. “While the US 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,” it read, “becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.”
Anti-interventionist attitudes are now a common feature of the populist Right, particularly on the issue of Ukraine. Prior to the midterm elections, then-House minority leader Kevin McCarthy asserted that there would be “no blank cheque” for Ukraine, while other MAGA Republicans like Marjorie Taylor Greene argued that America had “done enough”. Last night Donald Trump, with typical understatement, claimed that he was the only person who could prevent World War III. “With this administration, we could end up in World War III, because they don’t speak right,” said Trump. “They act tough when they should act nice, they act nice when they should act tough,” he added.
Against this backdrop and polls showing an increasingly war-weary public (particularly among Republican voters), the timing of DeSantis’s statement is noteworthy. As Florida Governor, DeSantis was never required to take a position on foreign policy issues, but as this New York Times piece notes, there was a period in which he was a much more conventional hawk. Back in 2015, he criticised President Obama for not providing arms to Ukraine, describing his refusal to do so as a “mistake”. Three years later, DeSantis then praised President Trump for providing weapons to Ukraine: “[Obama] did nothing when Russia invaded Crimea, made incursions into Ukraine,” DeSantis said. In contrast, Trump’s actions demonstrated “strength against Russia”.
Yet a closer examination of DeSantis’s statement to Carlson suggests that the Florida Governor’s dovish evolution may not be quite what it seems:
The framing of this statement appears to be geared against what could happen rather than what is happening. Indeed, no one in the Biden administration has mooted the idea of deploying American troops or giving Ukraine the capability to stage operations beyond its borders. Instead, DeSantis warns against “further entanglements”, which serves as more of a warning than a critique of US Government policy. There is no mention of peace negotiations or a deal.
Ukraine has sharply divided the populist Right from establishment Republicans. When (or if) DeSantis finally runs, the middle ground he is occupying may leave him vulnerable to attack from both sides. As primary season draws closer, eventually, he may have to choose.