Opinion: DeSantis needs to get his story straight on Ukraine

Photo/Jordan Gale/The New York Times / Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs copies of his book at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa on March 10, 2023. DeSantis, on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, broke with Republicans to attack President Biden’s foreign policy and align more closely with Donald Trump as he weighs a presidential bid.

Since describing the war in Ukraine as a "territorial dispute" that's not a vital national interest, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has received criticism from leading Republicans — including some of his rivals for the 2024 presidential nomination — and rightly so. DeSantis's comments echo a faction of the party eager to end U.S. involvement in Ukraine. Republicans should be under no illusions: Such views represent an abdication of leadership that will cheer America's adversaries and undermine its allies.

In his response to a six-question survey from Fox News host Tucker Carlson, DeSantis recently argued that "peace should be the objective," and the U.S. should not become "further entangled" in the fighting. Providing Ukraine with fighter jets or long-range missiles "should be off the table," he added. Echoing his dismissal of President Joe Biden's visit to Kyiv last month, the governor contended that U.S. support for Ukraine has compromised its ability to deal with more pressing concerns.

It's hard to quibble with some of DeSantis's arguments. He's right to highlight the depletion of the Pentagon's weapons stockpiles and to call for more transparency about how "the billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars are being utilized in Ukraine." The war has indisputably strengthened Russia's "de facto alliance with China," to the detriment of the West. And it's true, as DeSantis warns, that trying to overthrow Vladimir Putin would run the risk of direct conflict with Russia -- which is why no Western leader has made regime change an explicit policy goal.

Yet even conceding those points, DeSantis's maiden foray into foreign policy was alarming. DeSantis deems the war a distraction from the larger threat posed by China, but suggesting that the U.S. has no strategic interest in stopping Russian aggression could well embolden the Chinese when it comes to Taiwan. And by sowing doubts about his willingness to uphold America's commitments to its partners, DeSantis would weaken the U.S.-led alliances that underpin global peace and stability.

Stung by the negative reaction from several Republican senators, DeSantis tried to distance himself from his initial remarks in an interview published Sunday, calling Putin a war criminal and saying that Ukraine has a right to "100%" of its territory, including areas occupied by the Russians since 2014. At the same time, he reiterated his refusal to "escalate" the conflict by supplying Ukraine with more weapons.

DeSantis isn't alone in toying with fringe isolationism. Former President Donald Trump, who praised Putin's invasion as a stroke of genius, says he would end U.S. support for Ukraine immediately if he's returned to the White House. Goaded by voices like Carlson's, some Republican lawmakers have pledged to block any additional military and economic aid for Ukraine. This would only hasten Ukraine's defeat on the battlefield, allow Putin to subjugate his neighbor, and endanger the security of America's NATO partners -- all while rewarding China and Iran for standing by Russia. Republicans who believe that the U.S. can protect itself by avoiding entanglements and placating dictators are delusional at best.

With the 2024 campaign looming, prospective GOP nominees will need to choose between defending America's global leadership role -- as the party has traditionally done -- or siding with those actively trying to dismantle it. By all indications, DeSantis still isn't sure where he stands. Perhaps that's to be expected of a governor focused on winning primary voters. It doesn't instill much confidence in his fitness to be president.