PolitiFact – Did Ron DeSantis change his stance on Ukraine? If so, how much?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, considered a likely candidate to join the Republican presidential primary field, drew criticism from Democrats and some members of his party for taking a skeptical position on Russia’s war in Ukraine and the U.S. response.

In comments shared with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, DeSantis criticized the Biden administration’s “blank check’” in supporting Ukraine financially and militarily and likened Russia’s actions to a “territorial dispute.”

“While the U.S. has many vital national interests — securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness within 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 wrote in a questionnaire Carlson sent to potential presidential candidates. Carlson shared these answers March 13 on his “Tucker Carlson Tonight” show.

DeSantis’ statement struck a tone similar to that of former president — and potential 2024 Republican primary rival — Donald Trump, and different from the approach articulated by Ukraine allies such as President Joe Biden, former Vice President Mike Pence, and a declared 2024 GOP candidate, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley.

Some coverage noted that DeSantis’ message in the questionnaire differed considerably from the mid-2010s, when DeSantis was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, Barack Obama was president and Russia invaded, and then annexed, Crimea, a region of Ukraine.

But a close reading of DeSantis’ words, then and now, suggests more nuance than a simple flip-flop on Ukraine.

PolitiFact’s review found that DeSantis’ years-old Ukraine rhetoric differs starkly from his current emphasis, framing and tone. On the substance of what the U.S. should do, however, he has shown more consistency.

The change in tone might be designed to appeal to Republican primary voters DeSantis would have to woo if he enters the presidential race. Among poll respondents who identified as Republican or said they lean toward the GOP, the share that said the U.S. was providing too much support to Ukraine quadrupled in 10 months, from 9% in March 2022 to 40% in January 2023, according to Pew Research Center.

Here, we’ll examine examples of what DeSantis said in the Carlson questionnaire and how that squares both with his prior comments and with current U.S. policy.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to an inquiry for this article.

How DeSantis’ current positions compare with his previous ones

In an extensive review of DeSantis’ past statements and congressional votes on Ukraine policy, CNN uncovered myriad examples of DeSantis taking a tougher line on Russia — and a more aggressive approach toward helping Ukraine — than he has more recently.

On whether to arm Ukraine, DeSantis said in 2015, “We in the Congress have been urging (Obama) — I’ve been — to provide arms to Ukraine. They want to fight their good fight. They’re not asking us to fight it for them. And the president has steadfastly refused. And I think that that’s a mistake.”

As recently as March 2022, DeSantis said at a news conference: “When I was in Congress under President Trump, we funded a lot of weapons for Ukraine to be able to defend themselves.”

On Carlson’s questionnaire, DeSantis’ answer about supporting Ukraine was phrased carefully, in a way that didn’t contradict his prior positions. DeSantis said he opposes providing specific types of advanced weapons with major offensive capabilities. 

But when U.S. military aid to Ukraine was being considered in the mid-2010s — the period relevant to his statements around Russia’s takeover of Crimea — “F-16s and expensive weapons like that were not part of the discussion,” said Mark F. Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a national security think tank in Washington, D.C.

DeSantis’ answers to Carlson sidestep any criticism of the more basic military supplies that have been approved under both Trump and Biden. If DeSantis opposes those shipments, he didn’t explicitly say so in his answer to Carlson.

CNN has also highlighted votes cast by DeSantis on Ukraine and Russia, but they were generally on matters such as sanctions against Russia and statements in support of democracy. DeSantis’ answers to Carlson did not directly reject positions he had previously taken.

Where DeSantis’ answers to Carlson do differ greatly from his past statements is in their tone.

For instance, DeSantis told Fox News in May 2015 that Russian President Vladimir Putin “knows he can get away with things there. And I think if we had a policy which was firm, which armed Ukraine with defensive and offensive weapons so that they could defend themselves, I think Putin would make different calculations.”

DeSantis continued this framing of U.S. policy weakness into the Trump presidency. In a December 2017 interview with Fox News, DeSantis called Obama weak on foreign policy and aligned himself with former President Ronald Reagan. 

“A couple years ago, Obama was refusing to provide lethal aid to Ukraine — they were trying to do a ‘reset’” of relations with Russia, DeSantis said. “The Democrats lauded that. They viewed guys like me who are more of the Reagan school that’s tough on Russia as kind of throwbacks to the Cold War.”

Foreign policy experts were dubious of that comparison, given DeSantis current positioning on Ukraine.

DeSantis has also made warm comments toward Ukraine. In a February 2022 news conference, for instance, he said of the Ukrainian people, “I was heartened to see them having some moxie to fight back.”

By contrast, his statement to Carlson offers a litany of reasons the U.S. should be wary of engaging in Ukraine — the risk of nuclear war, the difficulty of seeking regime change in Russia, the dangers of a “blank check” on aid to Ukraine, depleted U.S. arsenals and the risk of being distracted from other national security threats. But it does not include even a passing acknowledgement of Ukraine’s predicament or its people’s suffering during the war.

This absence, said Erik S. Herron, West Virginia University political scientist, is punctuated by DeSantis’ framing of the current Ukraine situation as a “territorial dispute.”

“The war is far more than a ‘territorial dispute,’ and this has been made clear by the statements and actions of Russian officials,” Herron said. “While the other issues that DeSantis noted are legitimate concerns to have on a security agenda, downplaying the war shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the Russian threat to U.S. national security.”

DeSantis’ careful parsing of his public statements on Ukraine — communicating a strongly oppositional vibe while not directly repudiating his past positions — shows how well he has mastered political communication, said Aubrey Jewett, a University of Central Florida political scientist.

“Sometimes he’s able to push through big, dramatic changes and act as if they are not really a big deal, while other times he suggests there will be big changes when they really turn out to be more modest,” Jewett said.

In another instance of careful wordsmithing, DeSantis wrote that “the U.S. should not provide assistance that could require the deployment of American troops or enable Ukraine to engage in offensive operations beyond its borders. F-16s and long-range missiles should therefore be off the table.”

But there are no U.S. troops in Ukraine and no plans to introduce any. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been hesitant to send F-16 aircraft and long-range missiles to Ukraine for the same reason that DeSantis has expressed concern — that, as DeSantis put it, could bring the U.S. “closer to a hot war between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.”

Elsewhere in the questionnaire, DeSantis wrote that “a policy of ‘regime change’ in Russia … would greatly increase the stakes of the conflict, making the use of nuclear weapons more likely.”

This is also the policy of the U.S. government. When Biden ad-libbed early in the war that Putin “cannot remain in power,” the White House quickly said this remark did not represent an endorsement of regime change as official policy.

There’s only one clear stance in DeSantis’ statement that’s at odds with U.S. government policy: when he says explicitly that Ukraine is not one of the United States’ “vital national interests.”

To date, the United States has allocated $113 billion in military, humanitarian and other aid to Ukraine. The geopolitical importance of supporting Ukraine has wide support among Western leaders, military officials, and foreign policy specialists.

PolitiFact staff writer Yacob Reyes contributed to this report.

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