Ron DeSantis Is Clumsily Backing Away From His Past as a Russia Hawk
When then-President Barack Obama decided that the United States would not provide lethal weaponry as part of a $53 billion aid package to Ukraine in 2014, Ron DeSantis was quick to criticize the decision.
DeSantis, then a member of Congress representing Florida’s 6th district, told conservative talk radio host Bill Bennett in 2015 that it was a mistake for Obama to refuse to provide arms to Ukraine after Russia’s annexation of Crimea the previous year.
“I think that when someone like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin sees Obama being indecisive, I think that whets his appetite to create more trouble in the area,” DeSantis said at the time, according to a CNN report published last month. “And I think if we were to arm the Ukrainians, I think that would send a strong signal to him that he shouldn’t be going any further.”
Three years later, when President Donald Trump decided that the United States would provide weapons to Ukraine, DeSantis told Fox News that it illustrated the difference between the two presidents.
“[Obama] did nothing when Russia invaded Crimea, made incursions into Ukraine,” DeSantis told Jeanine Pirro in 2018. In contrast, he said, Trump’s actions were a way to be “strong against Russia” and prevent future conflicts.
In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, the Biden administration has wholeheartedly adopted the approach that DeSantis used to advocate. The U.S. has provided $113 billion in aid to Ukraine since the war began, much of it in the form of deadly weapons that have helped slow and even reverse some of the Russian military’s early gains in the conflict. The administration’s rationale for feeding money and arms to Ukraine has been a fear that Russia could threaten nearby NATO countries if Putin’s expansionist ambitions aren’t halted in the Donbas.
In short, it’s been nearly the exact same argument that DeSantis made in 2015 after the annexation of Crimea: Arm the Ukrainians to “send a strong signal to [Putin] that he shouldn’t be going any further.”
Now, however, DeSantis is criticizing that approach.
During an appearance on Fox News last month, DeSantis slammed Biden’s recent promise that America would continue to support Ukraine’s fight indefinitely, DeSantis called that a “blank check” approach to the conflict. He also specifically downplayed the threat that Russia supposedly presents to the rest of Europe.
“The fear of Russia going into NATO countries and all that…has not even come close to happening,” DeSantis said, adding that the conflict has exposed Russia to be “a third-rate military power.”
Judging from his history of talking about conflicts in Ukraine, DeSantis’ foreign policy seems to be defined by a simple rule. Whatever Democrats do is wrong, but whatever Republicans do is right.
As Flordia’s governor, DeSantis has excelled at that kind of zero-sum political game, positioning himself as the culture-warring conservative hero who is single-handedly saving the state from liberal ideologies and “woke” culture, making Florida a refuge for those fleeing Democratic-run states like New York and California. That might work on the state level, and it might work as a tactic for domestic political wins, but can it be effectively translated into a principle for guiding foreign policy?
As I detailed in this month’s Reason cover story, DeSantis’ politics have evolved considerably from his time as a member of Congress, where he served three terms between 2013 and 2018. The gap between that earlier version of DeSantis and the boisterous character that the governor has recently embraced will be something that other Republican presidential hopefuls will likely try to exploit if DeSantis decides he wants to seek the White House in 2024.
So what should Americans expect if DeSantis ends up not only as the general of the GOP’s culture war, but as America’s commander-in-chief, with the power to commit the world’s largest military to a real war?
Daniel Larison, a noninterventionist foreign policy analyst and author of the Eunomia Substack, sees DeSantis’ recent comments about Ukraine as an attempt to triangulate between Biden’s position and where some Republican voters stand.
“His position is very much shaped by domestic politics. If DeSantis comes out and opposes a Ukraine aid package, that would be a clearer signal that he is really staking out a different position,” Larison tells Reason. “He doesn’t want to take the political risk of coming out in favor of cutting off military assistance (and his record in Congress suggests that he has no problem with providing that assistance), but he doesn’t want to be seen as endo
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