DeSantis dismisses Russian invasion of Ukraine as a ‘territorial dispute’
March 14, 2023 Updated Tue., March 14, 2023 at 12:51 p.m.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is dismissing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” and says protecting the European nation is not a vital U.S. interest, firmly putting the potential presidential candidate on the side of Donald Trump and at odds with top congressional Republicans.
DeSantis delivered his foreign policy opinion in response to a questionnaire from Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, foe of U.S. aid to Ukraine and frequent critic of President Volodymyr Zelensky. Carlson read DeSantis’s statement on his Monday night program in which he also shared responses from the former president and former vice president Mike Pence, among other potential White House candidates.
“While the U.S. has many vital national interests - securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness with 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,” DeSantis said in a statement.
DeSantis said the United States should not provide Kyiv with any military assistance that would enable Ukraine to engage in offensives beyond its borders, ruling out the possibility of sending F-16 fighter jets or long-range missiles.
Trump, in his response to Carlson’s questionnaire, echoed his previous criticism of President Biden on Ukraine and argued that it was time for the two sides to negotiate a deal. Trump has said previously that he would let Russia take over parts of Ukraine in any settlement.
In response to the question of whether opposing Russia is a “vital American national strategic interest,” Trump said in a statement: “No, but it is for Europe. But not for the United States. That is why Europe should be paying far more than we are, or equal.”
Trump repeated his frequent claim that Europe’s military assistance is insufficient. While the United States has contributed the largest amount of money and weapons, the United Kingdom and the European Union have spent billions of dollars on aid, with Britain and Germany sending tanks.
DeSantis’s statement comes amid a growing fissure in the Republican Party over the U.S. commitment to Ukraine and the need to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some Republicans, notably including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), have argued that a sovereign Ukraine is in the long-term interests of the United States.
“Reports about the death of Republican support for strong American leadership in the world have been greatly exaggerated,” McConnell said last month in a speech to the Munich Security Conference. “My party’s leaders overwhelmingly support a strong, involved America and a robust transatlantic alliance,” he said. “Don’t look at Twitter. Look at people in power. Look at me and Speaker Kevin McCarthy.”
On Tuesday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) took issue with DeSantis describing the first land war in Europe since World War II as a “territorial dispute.”
In an interview, Rubio told radio host Hugh Hewitt, “It’s not a territorial dispute in the sense that any more than it would be a territorial dispute if the United States decided that it wanted to invade Canada or take over the Bahamas.”
“This is an invasion,” said Rubio, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, adding, “I think we do have an interest” in the conflict. Rubio said it is “a national security issue,” but “not an unlimited national security interest.”
Other Republicans have urged disengagement. In a speech this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) claimed that Zelensky “wants our sons and daughters to go die in Ukraine.” She urged the United States to stop aiding Ukraine’s defense, saying “that country needs to find peace, not war.”
Pence aligned himself with McConnell, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, a 2024 candidate, in expressing strong support for Ukraine.
“When the United States supports Ukraine in their fight against Putin, we follow the Reagan doctrine, and we support those who fight our enemies on their shores, so we will not have to fight them ourselves,” Pence said. “There is no room for Putin apologists in the Republican Party.”
The United States has sent more than $30 billion in weapons to Ukraine since Russia launched its renewed invasion in February 2022, shipping an increasingly sophisticated arsenal that includes GPS-guided rocket artillery, infantry fighting vehicles, and one-way attack drones. Biden administration officials have said repeatedly that the United States will support Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” though that it comes with the quiet subtext that it may depend on the winner of the next presidential election.
DeSantis, who recently has traveled to states early in the primary process, said the United States “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.”
The statements from the presidential hopefuls and would-be candidates came ahead of the latest monthly meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, a Pentagon-organized gathering of dozens of allies that have supported Ukraine by providing both weapons and money.
The latest meeting will be held remotely on Wednesday, putting Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in the awkward position of defending U.S. commitment to Ukraine despite the tens of billions of dollars in aid it has provided.
U.S. defense officials have urged allies to dig deeper and do more to help Ukraine even as challenges emerge in how quickly U.S. weapons makers can build munitions. Asked on Monday if the Pentagon may need to revise higher the number of munitions it keeps on hand in its stockpile, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks declined to say, adding that the Pentagon’s focus is on expanding the capacity of the defense industry to build more.
Hicks spoke as the Pentagon detailed its next budget proposal, which at $842 billion is the largest in nominal terms in U.S. history and one of the largest when adjusted for inflation. It focuses first on preparing for potential conflict with China, with defense officials expected to continue seeking supplemental budgets from Congress to support Ukraine.
The Pentagon comptroller, Mike McCord, told reporters on Monday that while the new budget is a logical extension of earlier defense spending packages proposed under Biden, it places an increased emphasis on buying more munitions.
“Ukraine has really informed and highlighted the need to up our game here,” McCord said.
Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Mike D. Rogers (Miss.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, have already declared the proposed Pentagon budget insufficient, predicting that lawmakers will add billions of dollars to it.
Pentagon officials have said that there are thresholds they will not cross in providing arms to Ukraine to ensure that there are enough munitions in the stockpile for the United States to effectively defend itself. Those numbers are classified.
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