A few weeks ago, when Fox News asked him about Russia’s war on Ukraine, onetime hawk Ron DeSantis surprisingly sounded a Trump-y line, dismissing the Russian threat and presenting American support for Ukraine as a distraction from “real” problems. On Monday night, DeSantis presented a statement to Tucker Carlson expanding his position.
The updated DeSantis line is significant for several reasons. First, it is both more detailed than his previous comments, and it’s written out, thus excluding any chance he omitted a key element out of haste. Even more significant is the media: Carlson, an isolationist who once boasted that he was rooting for Russia against Ukraine.
DeSantis’s statement was read aloud by a visibly impressed Carlson and posted on Carlson’s Twitter feed:
The new version leaves no doubt as to DeSantis’s intentions. Among the important signals it sends, the statement does the following:
1. Argues that stopping Russian aggression is not a vital U.S. interest. DeSantis’s first line lists a series of American interests and defines the war as outside them. “While the U.S. has many vital national interests — securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness within 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,” he writes.
2. Absolves Russia of blame for the war. The statement contains no acknowledgement that Russia bears responsibility for the war. Instead, it describes the war as a “territorial dispute between Russia and Ukraine” as opposed to an unprovoked invasion across internationally recognized borders.
3. Accuses Biden of a “blank check” policy. “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,” writes DeSantis. Biden’s support for Ukraine has, in fact, has been limited in both its scope and its particulars (the administration has denied Kyiv numerous weapons systems). Some Republicans have criticized Biden for turning down necessary aid, but DeSantis is criticizing Biden for excessive generosity.
4. Defines the correct objective as “peace.” DeSantis writes, “Without question, peace should be the objective.” Obviously, everybody wants peace. The dispute centers on the terms under which peace is obtained. Russia wants to pressure Ukraine to submit as much of its territory and sovereignty as possible, and Ukraine wishes to give as little as possible. The American stance has backed Ukraine, and DeSantis is signaling a desire to pressure Ukraine to submit to peace on Russian terms.
5. Warns of Ukrainian aggression. “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 writes. His concern that Ukraine will attack targets in Russia is all the more striking given his refusal to blame Russian for launching a war beyond its borders.
6. Warns of nuclear war. “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,” he continues. “That risk is unacceptable.”
In general, the figures who are most supportive of Russia have also been the ones who warn most starkly that opposing its aggression could lead to direct war with NATO. Donald Trump has been sounding this theme for many years. DeSantis is now echoing the line.
7. Accuses the United States of plotting regime change. “A policy of regime change’ in Russia (no doubt popular among the DC foreign policy interventionists) would greatly increase the stakes of the conflict, making the use of nuclear weapons more likely,” he writes.
There is no evidence the United States has taken any steps to depose Vladimir Putin. That said, given the highly personalized nature of the conflict and the growing cost to Russia of maintaining the war, it seems strange that DeSantis is so convinced Putin is the best possible leader for Russia: “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.”
8. Opposes sanctions. DeSantis presents the sanctions on Russia as a complete failure that have somehow benefitted Russia at American expense:
The Biden administration’s policies have driven Russia into a de facto alliance with China. Because China has not and will not abide by the embargo, Russia has increased its foreign revenues while China benefits from cheaper fuel. Coupled with his intentional depletion of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and support for the Left’s Green New Deal, Biden has further empowered Russia’s energy-dominated economy and Putin’s war machine at Americans’ expense.
This is an extremely distorted account of the effect of sanctions, which have denied Russia access to technology and parts it needs to sustain the war for a long period of time and pushed Western Europe to quickly free itself of dependence on Russian energy.
9. Depicts aid to Ukraine as wasteful. “Our citizens are also entitled to know how the billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars are being utilized in Ukraine,” he writes. Of course nobody denies that Americans have a right to know how aid to Ukraine is being spent. That information is, in fact, available. By implying that somehow the information is being hidden, or perhaps that the government is lying, DeSantis is encouraging suspicions on the right for which he is supplying no evidence.
10. Calls the war a distraction from the border. “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,” he writes. DeSantis may disagree with the Biden administration’s immigration policies, but there is absolutely no reason why an immigration regime DeSantis favors could not coexist alongside continued support for Ukraine. His imaginary choice between securing the border and defending Ukraine — a choice he also floated in his previous Fox News interview — is a classic isolationist rhetorical gambit.
When DeSantis made his previous comments on Ukraine, some conservative hawks refused to acknowledge reality and instead pretended DeSantis was actually trying to outflank Biden.
National Review’s Dan McLaughlin insisted DeSantis was making “a traditionally and conventionally hawkish critique of the American president for failing to deter a bad actor who would understand only strength and resolve” that was “consistent with his stance” from 2014 to 2017, when he was a traditional Republican hawk. Projecting his motives onto his critics, McLaughlin proclaimed that critics of DeSantis’s line were “blinded by partisanship.”
(This is a familiar pattern of behavior for traditional conservatives responding to DeSantis’s constant forays into paranoid authoritarian populism — they deny the obvious signals he is sending, which in turn gives him permission to continue, at which point they simply pretend it isn’t happening.)
Supporters of Ukraine’s independence can console themselves with some good news. First, because DeSantis adopted this position so recently, it is a transparent matter of pandering that he might well walk back if elected. And second, despite all his signals of disinterest in deterring Russia, DeSantis did not call for an immediate end to military assistance, giving himself a little bit of wiggle room.
But the downside is that his signals will be heard loud and clear in Moscow, where Carlson’s commentary is a regular feature of state television. Putin now has every reason to believe he simply needs to hang on until the Republicans take office again.