Opinion:  Did Ron DeSantis really flip-flop on Russia and Ukraine?

March 18, 2023

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signs books in Des Moines on March 10. (Rachel Mummey for The Post)

Anyone who expected Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to echo Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) position on the Ukraine war — that it is “is the single most important event going on in the world right now” — was bound to be deeplydisappointed. Republican voters by huge margins see China as a greater threat than Russia, and liberals’ framing of the war as an extension of a partisan domestic “democracy” agenda has undercut conservative support.

Still, DeSantis’s latest statement on the war — that a “territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia” is not one of the United States’ “vital national interests” — was more pointed in its repudiation of Washington’s consensus than many Republicans seem to have expected. (He was responding to a questionnaire by Fox News’s Tucker Carlson.)

If DeSantis runs for president, candidates such as Nikki Haley will make the alternative case for a greater U.S. commitment to Europe’s defense. In a 2024 Republican primary, however, the Florida governor is unlikely to pay a price for his Ukraine position. To the contrary: He’s vulnerable to charges of arriving at it belatedly and opportunistically.

“It is a flip-flop,” Donald Trump declared last week. “DeSantis reverses course,” read a CNN chyron. After Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea, when DeSantis was in Congress, he accused President Barack Obama of weakness toward Vladimir Putin and supported sending weapons to Ukraine.

The charge of inconsistency is worth examining not only because it could affect DeSantis’s political fortunes, but also because of what it illustrates about U.S. strategy. Russia started a limited war against Ukraine in 2014. Afterward, the Obama-Biden administration declined to supply Ukraine with Javelins — the shoulder-launched missiles that stymied invading Russian tanks in 2022.

If DeSantis is a flip-flopper for taking a hawkish stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2014 and not in 2023, then surely most Democrats also flip-flopped — in the opposite direction — over the same period. The previous Democratic administration denied Ukraine lethal weapons, but this one is sending not only Javelins but also precision rocket launchers, Patriot defense batteries, tanks and more.

There’s nothing inconsistent about this. Last February, Russia launched an all-out invasion to destroy Ukraine’s independence. In the Obama years, many Republicans wanted to send Ukraine weapons to deter such an act. Anti-interventionist Democrats wanted to avoid provoking it.

Both of these stances were defensible. But once the worst-case outcome happened anyway, the premise for both the hawkish and dovish prewar strategies went up in smoke. Whatever the West’s Ukraine strategy was in the 2010s and early 2020s, it failed at great cost.

One response to that failure is to elevate the defense of Ukraine above all other objectives and seek a total victory for Kyiv. But that’s not the only intellectually consistent position. After all, the war has reduced, not increased, Moscow’s threat to NATO countries as its land forces have been degraded and its munitions eroded. Russia’s attempt to subordinate Ukraine’s government has been decisively repelled — and it is struggling to hold southeastern regions of Ukraine that Kyiv will never surrender.

DeSantis’s use of the term “territorial dispute” was needlessly derisive of Ukraine’s right to self-defense. But it also reflects that the present issue in the war is not whether Ukraine can survive as an independent nation — it has proven that it can — but what territorial boundaries will exist after any cease-fire. It’s an oblique recognition of the success of U.S. strategy since the war began. Though DeSantis decried the (very real) depletion of U.S. weaponry, his statement never rejects arming Kyiv to strike Russian forces in Ukraine.

The statement does reject a policy of “regime change” in Russia — hardly a straw man when Kyiv and Western elites are advocating war crimes trials of Russian leaders, a practical impossibility unless the government in Moscow collapsed. The statement also rejected sending “F-16s and long-range missiles” to Ukraine, which is consistent with Biden’s policy so far. DeSantis could judge that the U.S. interest in NATO’s security does not require Ukrainian “victory” through strikes on Russian territory, but merely the exhaustion of Russian combat power on Ukraine’s eastern border.

The Florida governor is intensely attuned to the populist turn in Republican sentiment, and that surely influenced the phrasing of his statement. But the insinuation by some in the media — and Trump — that DeSantis is abandoning his foreign policy principles is unsupported.

The intra-GOP foreign policy debate is crucially important for the world’s future security architecture — something Western Europe’s political establishment, which wants Washington’s protection but continually denigrates conservative American values, doesn’t seem to understand. It’s possible that DeSantis’s stance heralds an actual reversal in post-World War II Republican thinking — a collapse of GOP support for a stable world balance of power. A poll last month by Echelon Insights found that Republicans under age 50 were less likely than Democrats under 50 to say the defense of Taiwan from China was in the United States’ interest.

DeSantis’s wariness of deepened American involvement on Ukraine might be a gateway drug to isolationism of the more all-consuming variety. But it could also be an antidote to isolationism if it can persuade GOP voters of their leaders’ discrimination and focus in the use of U.S. military might.

Republican voters have rebelled against an excess of idealism in U.S. foreign policy — the sense that liberals in Washington have grand designs for the world, but no urgent drive to create the hard-power capabilities needed to bring about even basic order and security. Republican Senate hawks put their money where their mouth is by calling for dramatically increased defense spending and arming Ukraine to the hilt. DeSantis disagrees with the hawks on the correct course in Ukraine, but he’s offering an alternative route to equilibrium in U.S. foreign policy by counseling against escalation in Eastern Europe.

That might be strategically unwise, but it’s not a reversal. If Republican foreign policy rigidity allows Trump to win the nomination, however, the GOP’s strategic direction will be unpredictable indeed.


  1. Yes, in my opinion, DeSantis flip-flopped. For sure, I do not want a POTUS who flip-flops. The world has gotten more dangerous. China and Iran and North Korea have proven it beyond any doubts, and not to mention mafia land. We need a POTUS who assures us remaining to being the number one military power on this planet. Now, this is more important than during the past 20–30 years. DeSantis as POTUS does not assure this. Trump doesn’t either. Both will endanger our global position by their reluctance to soundly defeat mafia land.
    Once again, the Biden administration should educate the people of the United States what this war is all about. Too many still see this as a fight solely between Ukraine and mafia land. They must see that this is a lot more than just that. A mafia victory would damage us in numerous ways. The administration should tell the people what the consequences are.
    Taiwan too, is important to us. It’s a shame that many Republicans under 50 see it another way, compared to Democrats in the same age group, as the article pointed out. The country is the number one hi-tech chipmaker in the world. This alone would make it a huge catastrophe if China were to conquer it. The under-fifty are exactly those who are in love with their smartphones and laptops and what have you. They should start asking themselves what would happen if a country like China had an iron grip on the “hearts” of their loving gadgets.

    • There is no evidence whatsoever that DiSantis ever had any sympathy for Ukraine. He is a scuzzy little small time hack who latched onto populism as a career move. Populists left or right globally always lick putler’s tiny jackboots: Trump, Bolsonaro, his successor Lula, Orban, Le Pen, Berlusconi, Corbyn, Salmond, Galloway etc.
      It is now up to Haley, Pompeo, Rubio (my choice), Graham, McConnell, Wicker etc to destroy the ambitions of Trump and DiSantis.
      I can’t believe that the US electorate would vote in numbers for putinoid scum like Trump and DiSantis, but then what do I know?

      • Alas, Scradge, foreign policies never played important roles for the electorate during presidential elections. Unfortunately, we must take into account a large number of ill-educated and ill-informed people in our country, who are not aware what importance foreign policy has for the US. This is the main reason why we maintain such a powerful military force. The same people who shout for “make America great again”, have lost focus on foreign policy, or never had it. Both, MAGA and foreign policy that keeps trash nations at bay, go hand-in-hand. You cannot have MAGA while sucking cocks of the likes of putler or Xi.

        • Keep in mind that 68% of the US population (Gallup Poll Feb 23) still favor helping Ukraine. That number has not shifted in over a year. Republican Party so far is split 48% against 52% for. Finally I wouldn’t put too much faith in polls of who is winning. In 2016, at this time of the election cycle, Ted Cruz was going to be president with Giuliani running a close second. Too soon to speculate.

          • Of course, you’re right, sir Cap. But, as I keep saying, the best thing is for this war to be over by before the next election.

  2. I have no problem with flipflopping as long as people admit it and explain why.

    but this is just classic textbook arrrssegivery and I don’t like that.

    • Indeed, everyone makes mistakes. But, to flip-flop from good to bad is a bad choice. On the other hand, what in the hell were you thinking before you flip-flopped from bad to good?
      A president and a presidential candidate is usually an intelligent person to begin with and he or she is virtually surrounded by experts and his decision should be sound and for the good of the country before thinking about your own self, which DeSantis clearly is now doing (thinking about his own self). He is not being intelligent, nor does he have or is listening to competent advisors. I shutter at the thought of him being POTUS.

  3. I don’t think we need a Haley or DeSantis.
    All that is needed is Biden and a generous shot of testosterone, or we should just add in a line so he will get a continuous flow.

    First of all, Ukraine will be saved as there will be ATACMS and F-18’s coming to Ukraine, and secondly, I think it will look funny to see an 80+ year-old with huge muscles and Klitschko sized shoulders.

    • I agree that all we need is Biden. If only Biden would stop pussyfooting around so much with each and every decision. I hope that he does find a set of balls – even tiny ones – and that the war is long over by before the next election.

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