Declaring this week that defending Ukraine against Russia’s invasion was not a vital interest for the United States, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida cemented a Republican shift away from hawkish foreign policy that has played out over the past decade and accelerated with Donald J. Trump’s political rise.
Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis — whose combined support makes up more than 75 percent of Republican primary voters in the nascent 2024 presidential contest — are now largely aligned on Ukraine, signaling a sharp break from the interventionist approach that drove former President George W. Bush’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Republican foreign policy hawks recoiled at Mr. DeSantis’s statement on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fox News on Monday night, in which the governor deviated from the position held by most of the Republican establishment on Capitol Hill, including Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader. Mr. McConnell and other top congressional Republicans have framed the invasion by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia as a fight to defend the post-World War II international security framework.
“DeSantis is wrong and seems to have forgotten the lessons of Ronald Reagan,” said former Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who led the House select committee investigating Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
“This is not ‘a territorial dispute,’” she said in a statement, echoing Mr. DeSantis’s phrasing. “The Ukrainian people are fighting for their freedom. Surrendering to Putin and refusing to defend freedom makes America less safe.”
She went on: “Weakness is provocative and American officials who advocate this type of weakness are Putin’s greatest weapon. Abandoning Ukraine would make broader conflict, including with China and other American adversaries, more likely.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said in an interview on Tuesday morning that he “could not disagree more” with Mr. DeSantis’s characterization of the stakes attached to the defense of Ukraine.
The State of the War
- On the Front Lines: From Kupiansk to Bakhmut, Russian forces are attacking along a 160-mile arc in eastern Ukraine in an intensifying struggle for tactical advantage before possible spring offensives.
- Plotting a Political Advance: Recent statements by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group, suggest he wants to move past his standing as a military leader and play a larger role in Russian society.
- War Crime Cases: The International Criminal Court intends to open two war crimes cases tied to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The cases accuse Russia of abducting Ukrainian children and of deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure.
- Ukrainian Refugees in the U.S.: The Biden administration said that thousands of Ukrainians who fled to the United States in the first months of the war would be eligible to extend their stay.
“The Neville Chamberlain approach to aggression never ends well,” said Mr. Graham, comparing Mr. DeSantis to the British prime minister who appeased Adolf Hitler. “This is an attempt by Putin to rewrite the map of Europe by force of arms.”
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also took issue with Mr. DeSantis’s comments — a significant rebuke from the senior Republican in Mr. DeSantis’s home state.
“I don’t know what he’s trying to do or what the goal is,” Mr. Rubio, a former presidential candidate, told the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.
And Senator John Cornyn of Texas told Politico he was “disturbed” by Mr. DeSantis’s comments.
Mr. Trump has long made his views on foreign intervention clear, railing against the Iraq war in his 2016 campaign, but Mr. DeSantis had sought to avoid being pinned down on one of the most important foreign policy questions facing the prospective Republican presidential field.
His choice of words, describing the conflict as a “territorial dispute,” was telling. By referring to Russia’s unprovoked invasion that way, he dismissed the argument that Mr. Putin’s aggression threatened the postwar international order. Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Trump have unequivocally rejected the idea that the conflict is a war to defend “freedom,” a position espoused by two of their potential rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, former Vice President Mike Pence and Nikki Haley, the former United Nations ambassador.
Mr. DeSantis left himself some wiggle room in his statement, which came in response to a questionnaire that Mr. Carlson had sent to all of the major prospective Republican presidential candidates. The governor did not promise to end all U.S. aid to Ukraine — an omission noticed by some hard-line opponents of support for Ukraine, who criticized Mr. DeSantis for leaving open the possibility that he would keep up the flow of American assistance.
Yet by downplaying the stakes of the conflict to the extent he did, Mr. DeSantis angered many Republicans in the foreign policy establishment who said he had talked himself into a corner. Even if he were to change his mind about Ukraine, how would a President DeSantis rally the public and Congress to send billions of dollars and high-tech weapons for a mere “territorial dispute” of no vital interest to America?
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Former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, said that the remarks were “a naïve and complete misunderstanding of the historical context of what’s going on,” and that authoritarians would fill the void if the U.S. retreated from global leadership.
Charles Kupperman, who served under John R. Bolton as a deputy national security adviser in the Trump administration, said Mr. DeSantis had shown “a very poor understanding of our national security interests,” adding, “I’m surprised he’s gone so far so fast.”
It was unclear who, if anyone, helped Mr. DeSantis write the statement.
Ms. Haley, one of the three major Republicans who have announced a 2024 campaign, released her response to Mr. Carlson on Tuesday, offering an unequivocal “yes” to the question of whether stopping Russia was of vital interest to the U.S.
“America is far better off with a Ukrainian victory than a Russian victory, including avoiding a wider war,” she said. “If Russia wins, there is no reason to believe it will stop at Ukraine.”
Conservatives who want the United States to shift its focus away from Europe to focus on combating China were delighted by Mr. DeSantis’s statement.
“Americans desperately need a foreign policy that understands what’s really in their interests and pursues those interests strategically and realistically in a dangerous world,” said Elbridge Colby, a former senior official at the Defense Department who recently briefed Senate Republicans on China policy.
“That’s clearly the approach Governor DeSantis laid out in his response to Tucker Carlson,” Mr. Colby added. “He prioritized the top threats to America, such as China and narcotics streaming over the border, rightly seeing Ukraine as a distraction from these top challenges, while also rejecting the Wilsonian radicalism that has led us to disaster before and would be catastrophic if pursued today.”
And there is a sharp divide between elite Republican opinion and the views of party voters. While many top Republicans were outraged by Mr. DeSantis’s statement, he and Mr. Trump stand closer to the average G.O.P. voter than Republicans like Mr. McConnell who are urging Mr. Biden to do more to support Ukraine.
A January poll from the Pew Research Center showed that 40 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters thought the U.S. was giving too much support to Ukraine. Only 17 percent thought the U.S. was not doing enough.
Conservative interventionists had held out hope that Mr. DeSantis would split with Mr. Trump on Ukraine policy. Mr. DeSantis spooked them late last month when he suggested on Fox News that he was not committed to defending Ukraine.
But Mr. DeSantis’s comments in that interview were brief and vague enough for these conservatives to stay hopeful that he would end up on their side. They searched for positive signs, finding solace in Mr. DeSantis’s record in Congress. In 2014 and 2015, after Mr. Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine, Mr. DeSantis criticized President Barack Obama as not doing enough to support Ukraine. In Florida, Mr. DeSantis recently hosted the historian William Inboden, the author of a recent book about President Ronald Reagan’s efforts during the Cold War, to exchange thoughts about foreign policy, according to two people familiar with the meeting.
Dr. Inboden and an associate did not respond to emails seeking comment. An aide to Mr. DeSantis did not respond to a request for comment.
Several hawks went into overdrive as they tried to lobby Mr. DeSantis. Kimberley A. Strassel, the Wall Street Journal columnist, urged him not to join what she called Mr. Trump’s “G.O.P. surrender caucus.”
“The governor has an opportunity to contrast a bold, well-thought-out foreign policy with Mr. Trump’s opaque retreatism,” Ms. Strassel wrote.
But pro-Ukraine Republicans who had observed Mr. DeSantis closely had more reasons to be alarmed. They were unsettled by his ties to the Claremont Institute, an influential conservative think tank that promotes foreign policy views broadly aligned with Mr. Trump’s. On Monday night, only the most optimistic interventionists could have still been hopeful that Mr. DeSantis would end up on their side.