Divide on Ukraine support emerges in early 2024 GOP field

Former president Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis contend that stopping the Russian aggression in Ukraine isn’t a vital US strategic interest

Donald Trump
Former president Donald Trump pauses as he speaks at a campaign event o March 13, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa.Ron Johnson (AP)

Former president Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are emerging as leading rivals for the Republican presidential nomination. But when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they are united in arguing that stopping the aggression isn’t a vital US strategic interest.

Trump and DeSantis were among the declared and potential GOP presidential candidates surveyed about the war by Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The answers from the group of Republicans revealed a divergence of opinions and underscored how the US response to the war in Ukraine is becoming a litmus test in the early phase of the Republican presidential primary.

But the responses from Trump and DeSantis were particularly notable, both because of their stature in the party and the similarities of their positions. They contended that American involvement had only drawn Russia closer to other adversarial states like China and condemned the tens of billions of dollars that the United States has provided in aid for Ukraine.

“We cannot prioritize intervention in an escalating foreign war over the defense of our own homeland,” wrote DeSantis, who hasn’t yet announced a 2024 campaign.

“Europe isn’t helping itself. They are relying on the United States to largely do it for them. That is very unfair to us,” Trump said, calling on European countries to share more of the financial burden of defending Ukraine.

While the US has provided the majority of the aid, European countries have made substantial contributions, with several giving Ukraine far more than the US in terms of a percentage of their gross domestic product.

Former vice president Mike Pence and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, reflecting an establishment GOP view of the conflict, stressed the importance of a Ukrainian victory over Russia. They cautioned that Russian President Vladimir Putin wouldn’t stop his aggression with Ukraine and warned that NATO countries were at risk.

“We support those who fight our enemies on their shores, so we will not have to fight them ourselves,” wrote Pence, who is considering a 2024 bid. Echoing a line he has used since the beginning of the war, Pence said, “There is no room for Putin apologists in the Republican Party” – a veiled criticism of Trump, who has called Putin “smart.”

In his first real articulation of a plan for Ukraine, DeSantis echoed a Russian talking point by referring to the war as a “territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia.” Ukraine’s borders are internationally recognized, including by the United Nations.

“While the US 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.

Citing a goal of peace, DeSantis said the U.S. should not provide any assistance that would lead to 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,” DeSantis said. “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. That risk is unacceptable.” The Biden administration has so far ruled out sending F-16 fighter jets and made clear to Ukraine that US weapons should not be used to strike Russian territory.

Trump, as he has before, noted that Russia’s invasion didn’t happen during his administration, casting the conflict as “due to a new lack of respect for the US.”

With him as president, Trump said, “that horrible war would end in 24 hours, or less.” Previously asked how he would accomplish this feat, Trump said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference that “you need that office, that power, that whatever it is” of being US president, without providing any details.

As president, Trump disparaged Ukraine and made friendly overtures to Putin, including publicly siding with the Russian leader and his claims that Moscow didn’t meddle in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump said opposing Russia’s war in Ukraine was of national strategic interest not for the US but for Europe, which “should be paying far more than we are, or equal.”

Haley, who declared her candidacy last month and posted her responses to Carlson’s questionnaire in an emailed statement, said US support for Ukraine was critical against an anti-American regime that is “attempting to brutally expand by force into a neighboring pro-American country.” A Russian victory in Ukraine, she said, would only make countries like China and Iran “more aggressive.”

Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, a potential 2024 candidate, called for “accountability for every single dollar spent” on aid to Ukraine. He also cautioned that the US should beware of the Chinese because of the “adversarial position they have taken against the American people” in “partnering” with Russia.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, another possible presidential contender, argued that the US “has come to rely far too heavily on financial sanctions as a weapon of deterrence” against Russia. She described the US aid sent to Ukraine as a “waste” and said it risked escalation of the conflict.

“This should be Europe’s fight, not ours. We should not waste taxpayer dollars at the risk of nuclear war,” she wrote.

Many of the survey respondents, including DeSantis, Haley and Pence, warned that the US shouldn’t write “blank checks” to Ukraine – a notion that Biden has strongly pushed back on, saying the administration hadn’t given Ukraine everything it had asked for.

US officials also say they have installed layers of oversight on how US money and other aid is disbursed, given Ukraine’s reputation for corruption.

In Washington, congressional Republicans have been setting up an aggressive effort to make the case for why the US should continue spending billions of dollars on the war effort, navigating a chasm between defense hawks and noninterventionists who mirror more of Trump’s approach.

The White House on Tuesday pushed back against the idea that assisting Ukraine was not a vital US interest.

“If we were just to lay back and let Putin take Ukraine... where does it stop?” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said. “And for those who are worried about the cost that this support that we have provided Ukraine amounts to, we would encourage them to consider the cost in blood and treasure – in American blood and treasure – should Mr. Putin succeed and continue to expand his goals.”

In a surprise visit to Washington just before Christmas, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a speech at the US Capitol that the American aid to his country was “not charity” but rather an investment in global security and democracy. “This battle cannot be ignored, hoping that the ocean or something else will provide protection,” Zelenskyy said.

None of the GOP survey-takers backed the idea of regime change in Russia. DeSantis said ousting Putin “would greatly increase the stakes of the conflict” and argued that a successor “would likely be even more ruthless.” Pence said the decision on whether Putin should remain in power lies with Russian citizens.

Trump suggested the real regime change should take place closer to home.

“We should support regime change in the United States, that’s far more important,” Trump wrote. “The Biden administration are the ones who got us into this mess.”

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