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Tipsheet

What Ron DeSantis Actually Said, and Didn't Say, About His Stance on Russia's War in Ukraine

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Critics on the Left and Right are aghast over Gov. Ron DeSantis' stance on the war in Ukraine, which he spelled out in heretofore unseen detail, in response to a questionnaire from Tucker Carlson -- who sent the same survey to a host of announced and rumored Republican presidential candidates.  Based on elements of his answer, and its apparently approving reception from the Fox primetime host (whose broad view of Russia's war in Ukraine I do not share), detractors are declaring DeSantis to be everything from weak, to naive, to "Putin's bitch," to a national security risk.  The latter epithets are mostly incoming from Democrats, who had no such things to say when Barack Obama faltered in the face of Putin's aggression, so they shouldn't be taken seriously.  But credible, sober-minded national security conservatives are also sharply critiquing DeSantis' response, and some of the points they raise are fair, if not valid.

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But having read the Florida governor's complete answer, I can't help but wonder if many commentators and analysts are seeing what they want to see -- both positively and negatively -- in it, as opposed to what's actually there.  Those who may have been predisposed to get the vapors and declare him a disastrous, Kremlin-appeasing non-interventionist are doing so.  Loudly.  Those who'd hoped he'd adopt a view in the Trump/Tucker mold read his statement as one of solidarity (others accuse him of 'copying' Trump, or pandering to Carlson).  Based solely on the document's contents, I wonder if both groups are misreading its substance.  Before I offer any commentary, here is DeSantis' stated position in its entirety (which is surprisingly hard to find online, compared to the explosion of snippets-based reaction):

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. 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. Without question, peace should be the objective. 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. 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. 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.  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.  

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. Our citizens are also entitled to know how the billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars are being utilized in Ukraine.  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.

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Let's start with two significant disagreements: First, framing Russia's outrageous, full-scale invasion of a neighboring country as a mere "territorial dispute" is wrong.  It is an unjustifiable, elective war of aggression, in which one side is clearly the instigator and at fault.  Second, I believe Ukraine's success -- really Russia's failure -- in this war very much is in our national interest (DeSantis may agree, but might want to parse what qualifies as 'vital').  Words matter, but these are semantics issues.  Russia's success in its terrible gambit could embolden its revanchist leader to push even further, which risks triggering direct US involvement, under our NATO treaty obligations.  And the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are watching with great interest to see how this plays out, as they ally themselves with and assist the Russians (Iran is also part of this axis).  If the relatively weak and shambolic Russian military is ultimately rewarded for its expansionism, with the West's resolve crumbling in fairly short order, that will serve as a dangerous object lesson for Chairman Xi.  DeSantis writes that countering CCP influence is a vital US national interest, and I agree.  The resolution of Russia's attack on Ukraine is relevant to that goal.

Many people seem to be reading DeSantis' answer as telegraphing an abandonment of Ukraine; a signal that he'd cut them loose as president.  But that's not what he wrote.  He echoed virtually every other Republican in saying that there should be no 'blank check' to Kiev, that Americans deserve full transparency about how their tax dollars are being used in Ukraine, and that Americans shouldn't provide boots on the ground.  All of that is standard and unobjectionable.  He also wrote that providing Ukraine with certain additional weapons, specifically for offensive incursions into Russia, should be off the table.  The Biden administration has thus far declined to offer some such equipment and weaponry, as well.  Nowhere does DeSantis write that the United States should cease any, let alone all, defensive military aid to the Ukrainians.  That strikes me as a key point that's being lost in the waves of concern over the 'territorial dispute' verbiage, plus the governor's listing of more urgent American national priorities, and his detour into swatting down any US policy of 'regime change' in Moscow (which, I'll remind you, also freaked out the national security establishment when President Biden seemed to wander off script and call for it in Poland last year).  Despite the intense reception to it, this was a mainstream statement that might even be most accurately interpreted as a practical embrace of the current status quo.  I made a few of these points on Special Report last evening:

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If I had to guess, DeSantis -- who tends to be careful with his words -- intentionally failed to mention ongoing defensive aid to Ukraine.  He warned against getting "further entangled" in the conflict, which is not the same as pledging disengagement.  This may be a too-cute-by-half political move, which in theory allows his position to act as a Rorschach test, in which more isolationist elements of his coalition may interpret what he's written as a clear sign that he shares their values, while more hawkish members of his party may attribute significance to the fact (as I have) that he explicitly did not oppose current or future military help for Kiev.  What he believes on that critical element of this wider issue wasn't addressed in his answer to Carlson's challenge.  It's something he should be asked about.  That answer matters a lot.  I'll leave you with a reminder that most Republican voters are strongly anti-Russia, and that the foreign policy posture candidates adopt during campaigns frequently differs from their eventual actual governing decisions in that realm, often thanks to intervening events:

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