Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to voters gathered at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on March 10, 2023, in Des Moines.
CNN  — 

Ron DeSantis isn’t even a declared presidential candidate yet, but his skeptical stand over the war in Ukraine means the Republican campaign is already revolving around him.

The Florida’s governor’s warning this week that the war is a mere “territorial” dispute that is not a core US national interest forced his potential 2024 Republican rivals to respond – and earned condemnation from some concerned and puzzled GOP lawmakers. It also focused attention on President Joe Biden’s multi-billion dollar lifeline of missiles, tanks and ammunition to Kyiv, raising the possibility that the war could become a major fault-line in the Republican primary race and next year’s general election.

And in a striking scene Wednesday that reflected a suddenly enlivened debate over US policy, the nation’s top military officer and the secretary of defense spelled out in robust language why Americans should care about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s onslaught.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and Secretary Lloyd Austin might have delivered their full-throated defense of Biden’s strategy even had DeSantis not spiced up the political debate over Ukraine. But their specific spelling out of the rationale for US support for President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government – which took place the day after a Russian jet downed a US drone over the Black Sea – took on extra significance in light of DeSantis’ comments. And it came across as an implicit rebuke of a governor who lacks foreign policy experience and who hasn’t laid out a specific worldview he might advance in higher office.

Milley argued that the conflict in Ukraine could hardly be more important to the interests of the United States and free people across the world.

“This is and remains a Russian frontal assault on the rules-based international order that has been in place for 80 years … since the end of World War II,” he said at a Pentagon news conference. “Ukraine matters,” Austin added. “It matters not to just Ukraine or to the United States. It matters to the world.”

In other words, this is far more than a “territorial” dispute between two neighbors.

Yet the sight of a top general and the most senior civilian defense official making the case for US involvement is unlikely to quiet criticism on the right of the US role. Conservative commentators and leaders like former President Donald Trump have long claimed a cabal of “warmongers” in the military establishment in Washington repeatedly plunge the US into foreign quagmires – and Wednesday’s developments may only reinforce such perceptions among the radical Republican base. And of course, given civilian control of the military, a new commander in chief who won in 2024 on a platform of pulling the plug on US aid to Ukraine would be in a position to discard Biden’s policy – whatever the views of senior Pentagon leaders.

DeSantis is overshadowing Trump on Ukraine

The Republican presidential race is teasing out political divides over Ukraine already exposed in the new GOP-controlled House of Representatives, where Speaker Kevin McCarthy must deal with pro-Trump lawmakers who oppose further US aid to the country. The divide runs down the middle of the Republican Party and pits hawks and establishment internationalists against followers of the nationalistic “America First” approach pioneered by Trump.

DeSantis, especially, has prompted Republicans in the tradition of ex-President Ronald Reagan, the scourge of the Kremlin, to speak out. But the Florida governor’s time in the spotlight must be particularly galling for Trump, who regards DeSantis as a disloyal protege for considering a presidential run against him.

Controversy over the US role in Ukraine was only heightened by the drone spat this week. Russia claimed the aircraft infringed its self-declared flight rules, but Washington said the incident happened over international waters. Russian ships have reached the crash site, according to two US officials on Wednesday. The Kremlin plans to try to salvage the drone in search of an intelligence payoff, which will likely expose Biden to fresh claims of weakness on the global stage from GOP critics who slammed his handling of a recent China spy balloon drama. Pentagon officials, however, indicated that remote pilots wiped the drone’s systems as it fell toward the sea, and believe that very small pieces of wreckage are submerged in deep water.

While trading harsh words about the drone affair, Russia and the US did appear to want to avoid further escalation that could develop into the direct US-Russia confrontation that has long been the most dangerous possible outcome of the war. But political reverberations still reached Washington. And Trump, especially, is leveraging the nightmare scenario of direct US-Russian clashes as he claims he’s the only potential president who could avert World War III.

All of this plays into increasingly acrimonious domestic US politics over the war – a factor that will not be missed in Moscow and Kyiv as officials plot battlefield strategy that may partly depend on how long US and Western voters will tolerate sticking with Ukraine.

DeSantis had argued in response to a questionnaire from Fox host Tucker Carlson this week that the war in Ukraine was a distraction from what he sees as real national security priorities, including securing US borders, military readiness, energy independence and checking the “economic, cultural and military power of the Chinese Communist Party.” He called on Biden not to become further “entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia.”

But Milley, who, like Austin, did not mention any GOP candidate by name, argued that the West was standing beside “Ukraine to support the principles of the rules-based international order, a system in place to prevent aggression and uphold the values of liberty and sovereignty.”

Austin also made a robust defense of US support for Ukraine. “It’s about one country’s ability to wake up one day and change the borders of its neighbor and annex its neighbor’s sovereign territory.”

Their comments mirrored those of establishment Republicans who have been dismayed at the early turn the party’s 2024 jockeying has taken on Ukraine.

A day after another Republican presidential candidate, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, criticized DeSantis and Trump, who has said he’d quickly end the war if elected again, former Vice President Mike Pence also weighed in.

“Well, look, the war going on in Ukraine right now is not a territorial dispute. It is a result of an unprovoked war of aggression by Russia,” Pence said on WGIR radio in New Hampshire, a day before visiting the Granite State as he explores a possible 2024 campaign.

“Russia is attempting to redraw international lines by force, which they did under the Bush administration, they did under the Obama administration in Crimea, and now they’ve sought to do so again,” the former vice president added. He argued the US needs to supply arms with the means to fight to “prevent the day that Russia would roll into a country where our sons and daughters in uniform would be required to go and to fight.”

DeSantis preserves room for maneuver

While the comments from DeSantis this week suggest that he would engineer a shift in policy on the war, he did not specifically rule out future aid to Ukraine. He did, however, specify that he would balk at sending equipment like US-built F-16 jets, which Ukraine could use for direct attacks on Russian territory.

This nuance has been somewhat missed in the furor that DeSantis stirred up, but it does show him preserving some maneuvering room even as he tries to counter Trump and appeal to the “America First” populism of the former president’s most loyal supporters. The governor’s stance also positions him well should public support for the war in Ukraine wane further by the time the Republican primary and general election campaign is in full swing next year.

Still, Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah warned Wednesday that the United States needs to live up to guarantees to assure the sovereignty of Ukraine. The former Soviet socialist republic is not a NATO member. But in an agreement that led to Kyiv giving up former Soviet nuclear weapons, the US and Britain and Russia offered assurances that its territory would not be violated. This did not stretch to military guarantees of direct Western intervention, however.

GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia disagreed with DeSantis that the Ukraine war was a territorial dispute. “I think it’s important to the security of this country that Putin is defeated in Ukraine. And I’ve voted to support that effort and will continue to do that,” she told CNN’s Manu Raju.

“The worst thing we could do right now is to pull back and send a message that we’re not resolute in supporting our allies,” said Indiana Sen. Todd Young, a Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. “I can’t imagine what Xi Jinping or the leadership in Iran would think if we took that course of action.”

But DeSantis did get some support from Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who argued that countering Russia in Ukraine was not America’s primary obligation.

“Well, I would say number one, we’re not the world’s policemen,” Hawley said. “We can’t police every conflict around the world. Number two, the situation in Europe should be the primary responsibility of the Europeans.”

But the reality is that the fate of the war could eventually hang on what US voters decide next year. As Republicans eying the White House stake out positions, they’re exposing their strengths and weaknesses – but also putting the pressure on Biden to justify his policy in the months ahead.