Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis once strongly supported arming Ukraine to fight Russia, urging then-President Barack Obama to do so as a deterrent to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe – a position at odds with his statements this week questioning the United States’ involvement in the conflict.
As a conservative congressman, DeSantis, now a potential presidential hopeful, urged sending “defensive and offensive” weapons to Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 and even voted to refuse to fund a new missile defense treaty with Russia until they withdrew from Ukraine, according to a review of DeSantis’ past comments by CNN’s KFile.
Once an advocate of a hardline, hawkish approach to Russia by supporting Ukraine, the Florida governor shifted course this week in anticipation of a potential presidential run in a changed, more isolationist Republican party, questioning whether it was in the United States’ interest to be involved in what he called, “things like the borderlands or over Crimea.” He added that Russia was not “the same threat to our country, even though they’re hostile” and downplayed the threats that Russia could invade NATO countries.
DeSantis’ foreign policy pivot from being a self-described follower of the “Reagan school” of foreign policy to a more Trumpian worldview comes as the Republican Party’s voting base has grown increasingly isolationist. A recent poll from Pew Research Center shows 40% of Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters now believe the US is providing too much support for Ukraine, up from 9% last year.
A CNN KFile review of DeSantis’ past comments and actions found that DeSantis consistently supported sending aid to Ukraine and condemned the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and 2015 and as late as 2017.
In a previously unreported interview with conservative talk radio host Bill Bennett in June 2015, DeSantis said he supported providing arms to Ukraine and NATO neighboring countries after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and criticized the Obama administration for not doing so.
“We in the Congress have been urging the president, 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,” said DeSantis.
“I think that when someone like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin sees Obama being indecisive, I think that whets his appetite to create more trouble in the area. And I think if we were to arm the Ukrainians, I think that would send a strong signal to him that he shouldn’t be going any further,” he added.
In an interview from December 2017, DeSantis continued to align himself with the “Reagan school that’s tough on Russia,” criticizing Democrats for not supporting sending aid to Ukraine.
“A couple years ago, Obama was refusing to provide lethal aid to Ukraine, they were trying to do a reset. The Democrats lauded that,” said DeSantis on Fox News. “They viewed guys like me who are – who are more of the Reagan school that’s tough on Russia as kind of throwbacks to the Cold War. They criticized Mitt Romney in 2012. Now all of a sudden because they’re using it against Trump, they’re so concerned about Russia.”
DeSantis supported Ukraine after Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014
In February and March of 2014, Russia invaded the peninsula Crimea in Ukraine and occupied the territory, illegally annexing it and declaring it as a part of Russia, an act that US and European allies decried and punished.
As a freshman congressman serving on the House Foreign Affairs committee at the time, DeSantis voted for a resolution calling on Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine and voted on legislation authorizing $68 million in aid to Ukraine and codifying sanctions on Russia, which later passed in the House and a similar bill was later signed by Obama. He also voted to sanction Russian and Ukrainian officials involved in the annexation as well as provide economic assistance to Ukrainians.
In May 2015, DeSantis voted for an amendment in the defense spending bill that would bar funds to implement the START treaty, a nuclear deterrent treaty between the US and Russia, until then-President Obama certified Russian forces were no longer illegally occupying Ukrainian territory. The House approved the amendment, Congress passed the legislation, but Obama vetoed the bill.
DeSantis also co-sponsored a resolution in 2015 supporting free elections without Russian interference in Ukraine, a direct response to the Crimea referendum DeSantis once referred to as a “obviously a farce.”
While DeSantis strongly rebuked Russian aggression, he did not advocate for military intervention, noting in 2014 that US military options were “definitely limited.”
“We have common cause with those folks,” he said in March 2014, referring to Ukrainians who protested the annexation, “but it’s just a type of situation where militarily, we don’t really have any, any options to do much. So, I don’t know if Ukraine as a whole is written off, but I don’t see us doing very much to reunify Crimea with Ukraine.”
DeSantis argued in an interview with Fox News in May 2015 that 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.”
He continued, “And so I think Obama’s policy of weakness is actually making a larger conflict more likely. And I think if you had Reagan’s policy of strength, I think you’d see people like Putin not wanna mess with us.”
After the Ukraine-Russia war broke out in February 2022
Following Russia’s initial invasion in February 2022, DeSantis remained quiet on the issue until he criticized the Biden administration’s response and blamed the invasion on President Joe Biden, citing the Afghanistan withdrawal.
“My feeling is that they haven’t done enough, Europe or Biden’s administration, to really hit Putin where it counts,” he said in a February 2022 news conference, emphasizing the Russian economy’s reliance on oil and gas exports.
He also expressed support for Ukrainians, saying “I was heartened to see them having some moxie to fight back.”
“And let me tell you, if you go into another country with an armed population that is hell bent on resisting you, I mean, it’s gonna be death by a thousand cuts for the Russian army,” DeSantis added.
Days later, DeSantis said in a news conference, “I think that Putin would probably not have done this if he thought the United States was strong, but I think he thinks that the United States is weak because of the impotence of Biden’s administration.”
DeSantis also highlighted his previous support for Ukraine in a different news conference, pointing to weapons for Ukraine funded during the Trump administration.