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Ron DeSantis says U.S. support for Ukraine in war not a "vital" national interest

DeSantis makes first Iowa visit ahead of 2024
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis one of many potential 2024 candidates to visit Iowa 05:58

Washington — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely expected to seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2024, said Monday that continued support from the United States for Ukraine as it defends itself from Russia's invasion is not a "vital" national interest.

While DeSantis has previously criticized what he called a "blank check" policy for U.S. aid to Ukraine, this is his most direct and expansive answer on the issue yet. The governor's stance puts him in line with former President Donald Trump and at odds with other top Republicans and potential 2024 candidates who have shown ardent support for Ukraine.

"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 Community Party — becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them," DeSantis said in a statement to Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

Carlson sent six questions to potential GOP presidential candidates about the war in Ukraine. Trump, DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie answered the questionnaire. Several, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, did not respond, and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley released her answers publicly Tuesday.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis Attends Freedom Blueprint Event
Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, speaks during a Freedom Blueprint event in Des Moines, Iowa, US, on Friday, March 10, 2023. DeSantis will meet with Iowa Republican legislators in Des Moines on Friday amid rising expectations that he will run for president in 2024, according to people familiar with the matter. Photographer: Kathryn Gamble/Bloomberg via Getty Images Bloomberg

Trump told Carlson that opposing Russia in Ukraine is in Europe's strategic interest, but not for the U.S. He also repeated his claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not have invaded Ukraine if he were president. When asked if there's a limit to funding and material he'd send to Ukraine, Trump said it would "strongly depend on my meeting with President Putin and Russia."

He also called for European countries to boost its support, and said he would tell Ukraine "that there will be little more money coming from us, UNLESS RUSSIA CONTINUES TO PROSECUTE THE WAR."

In an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity on his radio show last week, Trump said he would have negotiated a deal for Russia to "take over" certain areas of Ukraine.

DeSantis is widely seen as Trump's chief rival in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, and their positions on U.S. policy toward Ukraine reflect the shift among some Republicans who oppose additional assistance to Ukraine.

Haley took note of the similarity between DeSantis and the former president on Ukraine, and suggested Trump "is right when he says Governor DeSantis is copying him."

"I have a different style than President Trump, and while I agree with him on most policies, I do not on those. Republicans deserve a choice, not an echo," she said in her answer.  

Other prospective GOP presidential candidates have called on President Biden to do more to help Ukraine fight Putin, exposing a rift within the party ahead of the next election. Former Vice President Mike Pence said last month that the U.S. and its allies need to "accelerate the pace of military provisions" for Ukraine until it defeats Russia.

"While some in my party have taken a somewhat different view, let me be clear: there can be no room in the leadership of the Republican Party for apologists for Putin. There can only be room for champions of freedom," he said in a speech delivered one year after Putin launched the invasion. "The fastest path to peace is to help Ukraine win the war."

Haley, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under Trump and launched her campaign last month, has warned a Russian victory would have global implications. 

"This is a war about freedom. And it is a war we have to win," Haley said during a town hall in Urbandale, Iowa, last month. "If we lose this fight for freedom, Russia has said Poland and the Baltics are next and then we've got a world war."

In response to Carlson's questionnaire, she said opposing Russia in Ukraine is a vital American strategic interest, and the nation is "far better off with a Ukrainian victory than a Russian victory, including avoiding a wider war."

"If Russia wins, there is no reason to believe it will stop at Ukraine. And if Russia wins, then its closest allies, China and Iran, will become more aggressive," Haley wrote. 

But she pushed back against sending "cash or blank checks" to Ukraine, as well as deploying U.S. troops to respond to the conflict.

"Along with our allies in Europe and elsewhere, we should provide conventional weapons that enable Ukraine to effectively stop the Russian invasion and occupation of its land," Haley added.

Scott, who has been visiting early presidential primary states since late February, said "degrading the Russian military is in our vital national interest," but added there cannot be a "blank check" policy for aid. 

Pence, Haley and Scott are aligned with other Republican leaders, namely Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell said last month providing assistance to Ukraine "is not an act of charity" by the U.S. and NATO allies and urged the Biden administration to "act more decisively" to make sure assistance to Ukraine "take place at the speed of relevance."

Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who campaigned alongside DeSantis during their reelection bids last year, said the U.S. has a national security interest in Ukraine.

"There are things we can do and should do to further that interest by helping them. It's not an unlimited interest. It's not $60 billion every six months," he told radio host Hugh Hewitt. "But there are things we can do and should do, and that our partners in Europe should do more of as well, and are doing. And I do think there's some importance to it, and I think those of us who feel that way have an obligation to sort of explain to people how this fits in the broader overall package."

Asked about DeSantis' stance, Rubio said, "I don't know what he's trying to do or what the goal is. Obviously, he doesn't deal with foreign policy every day as governor."

In his response to Carlson, DeSantis criticized the Biden administration for continuing to provide economic and military assistance to Ukraine, claiming Mr. Biden's commitment to helping Ukraine defend itself "distracts from our country's most pressing challenges."

"We 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 Florida governor said.

While he acknowledged "peace should be the objective," DeSantis objected to U.S. assistance that would require American troops on the ground and ruled out providing F-16 fighter jets and long-range missiles.

"These moves would risk explicitly drawing the United States into the conflict and drawing us closer to a hot war between the world's two largest nuclear powers," he wrote. "That risk is unacceptable."

Trump criticized DeSantis' latest comments late Monday night, telling reporters traveling with him after an event in Iowa that the governor is "following what I am saying. It is a flip-flop. He was totally different. Whatever I want, he wants."

The U.S. has been the leading provider of military, economic and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, and Congress has approved more than $112 billion for the nation through four government spending packages. 

But with a divided Congress, it's unclear whether another aid package can clear the GOP-led House. Speaker Kevin McCarthy told Punchbowl News in October that Republicans would not support a "blank check" for Ukraine if the party won control of the House.

Fin Gomez contributed to this report.

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