Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida this week clarified his description of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” and said that Russian President Vladimir Putin was a “war criminal” who should be “held accountable.”
DeSantis, a Republican who is expected to announce a presidential campaign in the coming months, made his latest comments in an interview with British broadcaster Piers Morgan, who shared them with The New York Post and Fox News, both owned by Rupert Murdoch.
Last week, DeSantis made one of the most significant statements of the 2024 presidential campaign to date, to influential Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has criticized the Biden administration’s approach to Ukraine. “While the U.S. has many vital national interests,” DeSantis said in his statement, “becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.”
DeSantis did not mention Putin then and criticized President Joe Biden’s policy as a “blank check” to Ukraine with no clear objectives, one that distracts from U.S. problems.
The line about a “territorial dispute” was heavily criticized by foreign policy hawks, Republicans in Congress and, privately, some Republican donors. It also put DeSantis’ views more in line with those of former President Donald Trump.
But DeSantis used an apparently lengthy interview with Morgan early this week to clarify his statement to Carlson.
“I think he is a war criminal,” DeSantis said of Putin, for whom the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant related to war crimes. “I don’t know about that route,” he said of the arrest warrant, “but I do think that he should be held accountable.”
To Morgan, DeSantis insisted that his comment about a “territorial dispute” had been “mischaracterized,” but he acknowledged he could have been clearer.
“Obviously, Russia invaded” in 2022, DeSantis said. “That was wrong. They invaded Crimea and took that in 2014 — that was wrong.”
The change appeared not to have been lost on Carlson. Just hours after DeSantis’ new comments about Putin were made public, Carlson attacked what he said were people who give in to the news media, asserting that they are forced “to repeat whatever childish slogan they’ve come up with this week.” In a mocking voice, he said, “Vladimir Putin is a war criminal.”
While he was a congressman from Florida, DeSantis faulted President Barack Obama’s administration for not doing more, as Russia annexed Crimea.
“What I’m referring to is where the fighting is going on now, which is that eastern border region, Donbas, and then Crimea,” DeSantis said. “There’s a lot of ethnic Russians there. So, that’s some difficult fighting, and that’s what I was referring to, and so it wasn’t that I thought Russia had a right to that, and so if I should have made that more clear, I could have done it.”
But he added, “I think the larger point is, OK, Russia is not showing the ability to take over Ukraine, to topple the government or certainly to threaten NATO. That’s a good thing. I just don’t think that’s a sufficient interest for us to escalate more involvement. I would not want to see American troops involved there. But the idea that I think somehow Russia was justified” in invading is “nonsense.”
He added that he did not believe that the conflict would end with “Putin being victorious. I do not think the Ukrainian government is going to be toppled by him, and I think that’s a good thing.”
DeSantis’ stance on Russia has been of significant interest to Republicans looking for an alternative to Trump. Many Republican voters have come to say that the U.S. is providing too much support for Ukraine.
The governor’s record as a congressman left some people believing DeSantis shares their foreign policy views, even when their views are on opposite ends of the spectrum.
But his comments to Carlson were roundly condemned by a number of Republican senators, former Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and prospective 2024 rivals including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. And the lack of initial criticism of Putin was noted, particularly as DeSantis, in his statement to Carlson, derided the notion of regime change in Russia.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.