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The Ukraine Untruths of Disingenuous DeSantis

His recent remarks about the war have been cynical and deceptive.
March 15, 2023
The Ukraine Untruths of Disingenuous DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to Iowa voters on March 10, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, bills himself as an enforcer. Speaking in Iowa last Friday as he prepared to run for president, DeSantis bragged about capturing Haitian migrants and sending the National Guard to control “BLM riots.”

“There’s a new sheriff in town,” he told an audience in Des Moines. He boasted that Sheriff DeSantis was finally taking on one of America’s worst villains: the Walt Disney Company. He proudly informed the crowd that he was “staring down the mouse” and “delivering them the biggest defeat” Disney had suffered in Florida.

That’s DeSantis’s idea of courage: rounding up boat people and stripping tax breaks from Mickey Mouse. But when a real menace emerges—hundreds of thousands of Russian troops invading Ukraine and slaughtering civilians—DeSantis chickens out. He preaches appeasement and blames America.

Like many other Republicans, DeSantis pretends that helping Ukraine is an unbearable burden. In a statement issued to Tucker Carlson and posted to Twitter on Monday, DeSantis complained that President Joe Biden’s aid to Ukraine “distracts from our country’s most pressing challenges.” DeSantis posed a false choice between American and Ukrainian security: “We cannot prioritize intervention in an escalating foreign war over the defense of our own homeland.”

But DeSantis goes much further. In his statement to Carlson and in a Fox & Friends interview on Feb. 20, he has adopted a series of cynical, deceptive, anti-American talking points.

1. It’s just a border dispute. “I don’t think it’s in our interest to be getting into a proxy war . . . over things like the border lands,” DeSantis said on the Fox morning show last month. Likewise, in his more recent statement, he said America should avoid getting “further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia.”

Border lands? Territorial dispute?

This is rubbish. The war is an unprovoked invasion and occupation of Ukraine. When DeSantis calls the occupied territory “border lands” and frames the invasion as a “dispute,” he’s deceiving Americans about who’s right and who’s wrong in Ukraine, both factually and morally. He’s peddling relativist garbage of the sort that conservatives used to despise.

2. America is fueling the war. In his statement, DeSantis accused Biden of “virtual ‘blank check’ funding of this conflict.” The key phrase here isn’t “blank check”; people of good will can debate how much we should spend. No, the key phrase is “funding of this conflict.” That’s a clever misrepresentation designed to shift blame from Russia to America.

Vladimir Putin’s government is funding and perpetuating this war. If Russia were to withdraw, the war would end immediately. What the United States and its allies are funding is Ukraine’s defense. And the goal of that aid isn’t to perpetuate the conflict; it’s to end the conflict by driving the Russians out.

Putin wants Americans to blame their own country for the war’s persistence. He wants us to cut off aid to Ukraine, thereby allowing him to carry on his side of the war unimpeded and eventually conquer Ukraine. And DeSantis is helping him.

3. Peace is paramount, so intervention is bad. “Without question, peace should be the objective,” DeSantis declared in his statement. On this basis, he called for limiting American aid, and he went on to criticize “the DC foreign policy interventionists.”

It’s true that we should pursue peace and be wary of excessive intervention. But when DeSantis calls peace the objective—and when he contrasts this with American funding of the “conflict”—he implies that we should focus on seeking a peace deal satisfactory to Russia.

We’ve been down this road before. When Putin seized Crimea in 2014, we peacefully accepted it. The result was a further, bigger, much bloodier invasion of Ukraine. That’s the problem with pacifism: Sometimes, to get real peace, you have to defeat aggressors. Conservatives used to understand this.

4. Russia isn’t dangerous. In a 2012 presidential debate, Barack Obama mocked Mitt Romney for portraying Russia as our biggest geopolitical threat. Romney retorted: “I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr. Putin.”

Eleven years later, after two more Russian invasions of Ukraine, DeSantis is putting on the rose-colored glasses and taking Obama’s side of that debate. “Russia going into NATO countries” and “steamrolling” them “has not even come close to happening,” DeSantis scoffed in his Fox interview. “They’ve shown themselves to be a third-rate military power.”

DeSantis ignores the salient factor: Russia is failing in large part because we’re funding Ukraine’s valiant defense. And Putin, by continuing to wage war a year later, is proving that his military’s poor performance won’t stop him from trying to conquer his neighbors.

5. Don’t mess with China. In his interview, DeSantis bemoaned the “national humiliation of having China fly a spy balloon clear across the continental United States.” But 40 seconds later, he warned that in the face of possible Chinese weapons shipments to Russia, the United States should avoid getting caught up in “a proxy war with China getting involved” in Ukraine. The DeSantis policy seems to be: Shoot China’s balloons, but run away from its artillery and drones.

6. Don’t antagonize Russia. DeSantis doesn’t just oppose further American involvement in the war. He also seems to oppose our sanctions. According to his statement, “The Biden administration’s policies have driven Russia into a de facto alliance with China. Because China has not and will not abide by the embargo, Russia has increased its foreign revenues while China benefits from cheaper fuel.”

Essentially, DeSantis is suggesting that instead of pressing China to join us in isolating Russia, we should accept China’s defiance of the sanctions and let Russia resume selling its oil around the world. And we should blame Biden’s belligerence for driving Putin into China’s arms.

If a Democratic president were to say these things—dismissing Russia as a threat, cowering before China, preaching moral equivalence, and blaming America for Russia’s war—every Republican presidential candidate would denounce that president as a gutless, soulless, Putin-loving traitor. And Ron DeSantis would be at the front of that pack of accusers.

Instead, a Democratic president is standing up to Putin. And he’s facing a Republican who would rather attack Mickey Mouse.

William Saletan

William Saletan is a writer at The Bulwark.