Mar 16, 2023

The Republican position on Ukraine.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Image: Gage Skidmore
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Image: Gage Skidmore 

DeSantis's response caused quite the stir.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

We break down what Ron DeSantis said about Ukraine, and I try to answer the question that got everyone talking. 

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Quick hits

  1. The Biden administration warned TikTok that it could be banned in the U.S. if its parent company ByteDance doesn't sell its stake in the U.S. version of the app. (The threat)
  2. After a years-long legal battle, Texas announced a state takeover of the Houston Independent School district, which suffered from too many failing test scores. (The takeover)
  3. U.S. officials arrested the exiled Chinese business tycoon Gi Wengui in New York City, accusing him of orchestrating a $1 billion fraud scheme. (The arrest)
  4. Former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) was confirmed as ambassador to India. The Senate voted 52-42 to approve his nomination after a two-year delay while he was investigated for allegations of enabling sexual harassment by his staff. (The confirmation)
  5. The Pentagon released footage from a U.S. drone showing a Russian fighter jet dumping fuel on it over the Black Sea. (The footage)

Today's topic.

Republicans and Ukraine. On Monday, Fox News published the results of a questionnaire it presented to every leading Republican presidential candidate about their position on Ukraine. Specifically, the questionnaire asked, "Is opposing Russia in Ukraine a vital American national strategic interest?"

Among the respondents, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis drew the strongest reaction and the most headlines. DeSantis is one of the most popular Republicans in the country, and is widely expected to run for president in 2024 and challenge frontrunner former President Donald Trump. While many news organizations are quoting pieces of his response, we are going to share it in full, italicized, below:

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 Communist Party – becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.

The Biden administration’s virtual “blank check” funding of this conflict for “as long as it takes,” without any defined objectives or accountability, distracts from our country’s most pressing challenges. Without question, peace should be the objective. The U.S. should not provide assistance that could require 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. 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.

A policy of “regime change” in Russia (no doubt popular among the DC foreign policy interventionists) would greatly increase the stakes of the conflict, making the use of nuclear weapons more likely.

Such a policy would neither stop the death and destruction of the war, nor produce a pro-American, Madisonian constitutionalist in the Kremlin. History indicates that Putin’s successor, in this hypothetical, would likely be even more ruthless. The costs to achieve such a dubious outcome could become astronomical. 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. Coupled with his intentional depletion of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and support for the Left’s Green New Deal, Biden has further empowered Russia’s energy-dominated economy and Putin’s war machine at Americans’ expense.

Our citizens are also entitled to know how the billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars are being utilized in Ukraine. 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.

DeSantis's response comes at a time when American support for backing Ukraine remains high and steady, though Republican support appears to be falling slightly. According to Gallup polling, in August of 2022, 65% of Americans said they "Support Ukraine reclaiming territory, even if prolonged conflict," while 31% said to "End conflict quickly, even if Russia keeps territory." In January of 2023, those numbers were nearly identical.

However, the percentage of Republicans who said they "Support Ukraine reclaiming territory, even if prolonged conflict," was just 53%, and some 47% of Republicans separately said they thought the U.S. was "doing too much" to aid Ukraine. Meanwhile, in an Axios/Ipsos poll, 59% of Americans said they supported providing weapons and financial support to Ukraine, but just 42% of Republicans did (compared to 79% of Democrats and 60% of independents).

In 2022 alone, the United States approved a cumulative $113 billion of military and financial aid to Ukraine. While no U.S. soldiers have become directly involved in the war, the United States has increased its military presence across Europe, and some U.S. soldiers are training Ukrainians in Germany.

Today, we're going to explore some responses to DeSantis's answer, as well as some commentary on the current state of GOP support for Ukraine.

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left criticize DeSantis, saying he is playing to the MAGA base and parroting false Russian propaganda.
  • Some argue he is being intentionally squishy about his position, trying to have it both ways after being a staunch Ukraine supporter in Congress.
  • Others say his answer is a cave to the "pro-Putin" wing of the GOP.

In New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait said DeSantis's answer "thrilled" Tucker Carlson.

"The updated DeSantis line is significant for several reasons. First, it is both more detailed than his previous comments, and it’s written out, thus excluding any chance he omitted a key element out of haste," Jonathan Chait said. "Among the important signals it sends, the statement does the following: Argues that stopping Russian aggression is not a vital U.S. interest... Absolves Russia of blame for the war... Accuses Biden of a “blank check” policy... Defines the correct objective as “peace.”... Warns of Ukrainian aggression... Warns of nuclear war... Accuses the United States of plotting regime change... Opposes sanctions... Depicts aid to Ukraine as wasteful... Calls the war a distraction from the border.

"When DeSantis made his previous comments on Ukraine, some conservative hawks refused to acknowledge reality and instead pretended DeSantis was actually trying to outflank Biden," he wrote. "This is a familiar pattern of behavior for traditional conservatives responding to DeSantis’s constant forays into paranoid authoritarian populism — they deny the obvious signals he is sending, which in turn gives him permission to continue, at which point they simply pretend it isn’t happening. Supporters of Ukraine’s independence can console themselves with some good news. First, because DeSantis adopted this position so recently, it is a transparent matter of pandering that he might well walk back if elected. And second, despite all his signals of disinterest in deterring Russia, DeSantis did not call for an immediate end to military assistance, giving himself a little bit of wiggle room."

In MSNBC, Zeeshan Aleem said DeSantis is being a "squirmy MAGA candidate."

"DeSantis sounds as if he is aligned with Trump on the war, but the language is also designed to make him look more opposed to President Joe Biden's policy than he is," Aleem said. "DeSantis wants to look like a MAGA candidate, but he’s doing it in the squirmiest way possible. DeSantis issued the statement to Fox News host Tucker Carlson in response to a questionnaire. That in and of itself is a clue as to how he likely wanted his statement to be received. Given that Carlson is a staunch nationalist and critic of aid to Ukraine, it only makes sense that DeSantis would offer a lengthy statement that Carlson would be congenial to. The statement ticks all the boxes on right-wing nationalist rhetoric.

"First, in accordance with America First principles, DeSantis focuses on the U.S.’s border security and energy security, and highlights only China as a foreign adversary worthy of challenge. Second, he signals extraordinary friendliness to Moscow when he refers to the war in Ukraine as a 'territorial dispute.' The language implies that Russia and Ukraine might have equally legitimate claims to land in the war, and obscures the reality that Russia invaded Ukraine in a war of aggression and is trying to annex Ukraine’s territory in violation of international law," Aleem said. "That’s not entirely surprising given his ambitions, but it is still striking to see a more buttoned-up, establishment-friendly politician like DeSantis so blatantly downplay Russia’s misbehavior."

In The Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin said DeSantis decided if you can't beat the "pro-Putin wing" of the party, just join them.

"He declared that Russia’s brutal and unjustified war of aggression against a sovereign Ukraine is actually 'a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia' and that protecting Ukraine is not a 'vital' national interest of the United States," Rubin wrote. 'His implicit agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Ukraine has no right to territorial integrity contradicts the view of 140 United Nations member countries and gives oxygen to the Russian propaganda effort. (If Mexico invaded Texas, would it be a 'territorial dispute'?) DeSantis’s betrayal of Ukraine (delivered in a statement read on Monday on pro-Putin propagandist Tucker Carlson’s show, no less) is an ominous indication of where DeSantis and the GOP base are heading on the defense of democracy and American foreign policy."

DeSantis has chosen to cast his lot with the crowd that admires Putin’s army as the antithesis of the supposedly 'woke' U.S. military. In doing so, DeSantis has simultaneously flip-flopped on a major issue, betrayed a core U.S. national interest (in defending democratic allies against international aggression) and signaled that pro-Putin foreign policy rhetoric is an essential component of a MAGA candidate’s identity," she said. "His move serves to divide the GOP. While MAGA voices in the House get a disproportionate amount of attention, the lion’s share of House and Senate Republicans (especially Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky) strongly endorses support for Ukraine... The majority of Americans, more than 70 percent, favor our role in the defense of Ukraine, and more than 90 percent have a negative view of Russia."

What the right is saying.

  • The right is divided on the comments, with some supporting DeSantis and others criticizing his remarks.
  • Some say DeSantis is flat out wrong that countering Russian aggression is not a vital interest, while others argue his views are in the mainstream.
  • Some called out liberal critics of DeSantis, noting how wrong they have been about past conflicts.

In The New York Post, Dalibor Rohac said DeSantis is "flat out wrong" in his comments about Ukraine.

"DeSantis is correct to criticize the Biden administration’s lack of clear objectives in its support for ‘as long as it takes,’ which is a recipe for a long and intractable conflict — which Americans would be right to reject. He is also right to point out President Biden’s energy policies have been lackluster — and much of the blame is to be placed at the door of the left’s climate fixation," Rohac wrote. "The rest, alas, is a hot mess, starting with a series of straw-man arguments warning against 'deployment of American troops,' which nobody is advocating, and a 'policy of regime change in Russia,' which 'would greatly increase the stakes of the conflict.'

"The latter policy, 'no doubt popular among the DC foreign policy interventionists,' according to DeSantis, is in fact nonexistent, either as an official position or even as a topic among actual 'foreign-policy interventionists,' among whom I may be counted," Rohac said. "Most fundamentally, he fails to understand the stakes of the conflict (a 'territorial dispute,”'in his words) in the context of our long-term competition with China. He presents a false dichotomy between helping Ukraine and pursuing our 'vital interests.' In reality, our military assistance to Ukraine puts the United States in a far better position to confront China... A prosperous Europe at peace would be a far stronger partner in holding Beijing accountable than a Europe preoccupied with its own security."

In The Washington Examiner, Byron York said DeSantis's view was "in the mainstream" on Ukraine.

"Read what DeSantis wrote. Are his positions somehow out of line with national security? Do they conflict with fundamental human decency? Do they side with Putin over the West? The answer to each question is no. In fact, DeSantis's answers to the Carlson questions fall into the broad middle of American views on U.S. support for Ukraine. They are...reasonable," York said. "The national interests DeSantis lists as vital — borders, military readiness, etc. — are unquestionably vital. There are others DeSantis does not list — his statement is not presented as conclusive. But DeSantis says that becoming 'further' involved in the Ukraine war is not on the list of U.S. vital national interests. The use of 'further' is the first of several indications that DeSantis does not oppose U.S. military aid to Ukraine — he just wants well-defined limits on that support.

"Some will see his use of the phrase 'territorial dispute' as belittling the Ukraine conflict. But Russia and Ukraine had been fighting over disputed territory for quite a while before Russia's 2022 invasion," York said. "Supporters of greater U.S. aid might want to describe the war in more dramatic terms, but DeSantis is not wrong. Finally, DeSantis's opposition to what he calls President Joe Biden's 'blank check' policy and the president's 'as long as it takes' commitment is another way of stressing the position, common among Republicans, that U.S. aid to Ukraine should be subject to limits. Perhaps those limits might extend to a significant amount of military aid, but in the end, there are limits."

Also in The Washington Examiner, Timothy P. Carney criticized "liberal hawks" who learned "nothing" from Iraq.

"Jonathan Chait was among a cadre of liberals who vociferously and consistently supported George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. Twenty years later, he is making it clear that he wants the next president to be hawkish against Russia, a nuclear-armed superpower,” Chait said. “To this end, Chait is rolling out the same sort of bad arguments that Iraq hawks used 20 years ago, beginning with the accusation that if you express concern about the costs of United States intervention, the potential for blowback, or the dangers of regime change, you are a fan of the evil dictator. Those of us who publicly opposed the Iraq War 20 years ago were called terrorist sympathizers, Saddam supporters, and unpatriotic. Chait relies on that form of argument twice in his latest attack on Ron DeSantis. The specific DeSantis statement Chait suggests is pro-Russia is this one:

"'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.'... I agree with DeSantis. Chait, as 20-plus years has made clear, is less bothered by U.S. involvement in wars, and so his risk tolerance is evidently higher. But it’s facile and dumb to say that strong aversion to a U.S.-Russia war is a pro-Putin position," Carney said. "The second time Chait deploys the 'for war or for the bad guy' argument technique regards — and I am not joking — regime-change wars. DeSantis knows that regime-change wars are a bad idea. This is not a novel idea. It’s pretty obvious that deposing Hussein and deposing Moammar Gadhafi did not improve things in Iraq or in Libya. Yet when DeSantis rightly argues that regime-change war would be bad, Chait sums it up this way: 'DeSantis is so convinced Putin is the best possible leader for Russia.'"

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • I decided to participate in the exercise and try to answer the question myself.

I thought about doing a normal "my take" today where I examined DeSantis’s statement and the arguments above, for which there was plenty of meat on the bone.

It’s important to note that DeSantis's top points — like opposing sending offensive weapons to Ukraine, or F-16 jets, or U.S. soldiers, opposing "blank checks," and opposing "regime change" — are all identical to Biden's positions, so it’s disingenuous to frame them as different. I can, like Timothy Carney (in “What the right is saying”), criticize the record of liberals who have supported disastrous wars in the past. I can also, like Zeeshan Aleem (in “What the left is saying”), note the absurdity of framing the war as a "territorial dispute," or call out the things DeSantis got right — like our lack of clear objectives and the prioritization of avoiding a nuclear conflict. I can also throw Fox News some credit, after tearing into them a few weeks ago, for getting answers from candidates to these very important questions.

But I keep coming back to the first question that prompted all this: Is opposing Russia in Ukraine a vital American national strategic interest?

And, rather than criticize what everyone else said, I decided to try an experiment. I am going to put my pretend presidential candidate cap on. How would I answer this same question were I running in 2024? It’s not easy.

But this is what I came up with:

Yes, opposing Russia in Ukraine is a vital interest for the United States. Americans are rightly skeptical of our involvement in foreign conflicts. Every generation of voting Americans today can point to a war they lived through where we spent too much, did too little, or made things worse. From Iraq to Vietnam, America's record on foreign intervention has plenty of scars. Ukraine, though, has many distinctions.

For starters, there is a clear, undeniable moral line in this conflict. Ukraine, though imperfect, is a sovereign nation that has been invaded. Over 40 million people live there, and until a little over a year ago, they were living freely. Now, they are fighting for their autonomy against an authoritarian leader’s full-scale invasion, with many of the most populous areas under the constant threat of bombings and attacks. This is not a "territorial dispute." Putin is not defending Russians from a grave threat. He is the threat: He is attempting to take over a country that he wants to rule by force.

Even with our help, tens of thousands of people on both sides of this conflict have died, millions have been displaced, and victory in this war rests on a knife's edge. Without our help, Ukraine almost certainly would have fallen by now, and millions would have suddenly been subjected to forced rule, expulsion, oppression, or death.

Which brings me to my second point: Ukraine's security is Europe's security, and a strong Europe strengthens our country. You can fly from Rome, Italy, to Kiev, Ukraine in less than three hours — about the same as traveling from Philadelphia to Miami. We are not talking about a tiny battle over a hundred acres of oil-rich land between warring factions in a country with few historical or diplomatic ties to the U.S. We are talking about a European nation whose economy and security are already deeply tied to ours — and therefore, we benefit from peace and stability in not only that country but in all of Europe. Look no further than the current cost of food and fuel here in the states to understand our interconnectedness.

Finally, if Ukraine were to fall, few believe Russia's leader would stop there. Putin sees the fall of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. He has not been coy about his intentions, and Ukraine is just one of several former Soviet states he'd love to bring back under Russian rule. Successfully overthrowing Ukraine would put Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Georgia all on the block. Some of those are NATO nations, with whom our president and Congress have mutual defense treaties.

That would mean stepping into the conflict not just with cash and weapons as we’ve done in Ukraine, but with soldiers, fighter jets, and Navy fleets. An attack on a NATO ally would almost certainly mean all-out war between the United States, Europe and Russia (and potentially China). A Putin loss in Ukraine lowers the chances of any American soldier ever dying in this conflict, as well as reducing the risk of this conflict spreading across Europe and the planet.

All of this — the moral and strategic calculations — makes opposing Russia in Ukraine not just a vital strategic interest in 2023, but the most pressing and vital strategic foreign policy interest we currently have.

That does not mean we write blank checks or put boots on the ground or recklessly spin up more conflict or allow our European partners to sit this out. That does not mean we ignore our own domestic issues. That does not mean we blindly wade into this conflict or repeat mistakes we've made in the Middle East. I’m all for drawing lines in the sand about what we will and won’t commit and sticking to them, or capping the amount of money we can commit to this conflict.

But it is in our interest to remain strongly invested in Ukraine's success. It is imperative we continue to come forward with a willingness to sacrifice our own money and resources to help them, understanding that their failure would not just be a great injustice and tragedy, but that an emboldened Putin would also pose a major threat to the security of Europe, our closest allies, and our own economic and national security.

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Your questions, answered.

Q: While the decision to approve the Willow project is a broken promise on Biden’s part, should we consider this kind of thing a broken promise or even a bad thing? Don’t we elect people, and not political platforms, so that course corrections like these can be made?

— Michael from Carson, California

Tangle: This is a fair question. Obviously, you are plucking at my heartstrings a bit when you make an argument that people should be given the space to change their minds about issues. That is a core tenet of Tangle, and something I believe in quite strongly. But President Biden isn’t framing this as a broken promise or addressing the conflict head-on.

That’s especially notable since every promise could be either a soft or a hard promise. This was not a "soft promise" like "I'm going to reach across the aisle and work with Republicans." That’s hard to measure and in many ways intangible. This was a hard promise about a specific policy: We are not going to approve any oil drilling on federal lands. The challenges of that promise were well known at the time he made it. Yet he made it over and over.

Could Biden have known that inflation was going to rock the U.S., that Russia would invade Ukraine, and that two years into his term we'd be facing some major energy constraints? Of course not. But he served for eight years as vice president and decades as a senator. I'm sure he knew there would be some major economic destabilization during his presidency. He certainly understood how our energy dependencies abroad were positioned. And despite that, he made a very explicit promise not to drill oil on federal lands.

So, yes: I think there is a world where you can reframe what happened as a "course correction" Biden had to make to new circumstances. But I think, without acknowledging it, he broke a hard promise.

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Under the radar.

On Wednesday, a U.S. judge in Texas questioned lawyers for President Biden's administration on whether federal regulatory approval for an abortion pill was legal. The pill, mifepristone, is under threat of being removed after a request by anti-abortion groups to ban sales of the drug nationwide. The judge asked the groups to explain how he could reverse approval of a long-established drug, though he seemed sympathetic to many of their arguments. Since the fall of Roe v. Wade, such drugs have become increasingly significant in both maintaining access to and attempts to regulate abortion. Reuters has the story.


  • $75 billion. The amount of aid the U.S. and Congress have sent to Ukraine so far.
  • $46.6 billion. The amount of that aid that has been military assistance.
  • $7.4 billion. The amount of combined military assistance sent to Israel, Afghanistan and Egypt in all of 2020.
  • $284 million. The amount of military aid sent to Ukraine in 2020.
  • $5.1 billion. The amount of military aid sent to Ukraine by the United Kingdom since the war began, the second most of any other country.
  • $29.7 billion. The amount of financial aid sent to Ukraine by European Union institutions.

The extras.

  • One year ago today, we were covering the daylight savings debate.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter: An ad we ran for the newsletter Morning Brew.
  • Drill baby, drill: 78.3% of Tangle readers said President Biden was right to approve the oil drilling project in Alaska.
  • Nothing to do with politics: Your odds of getting a perfect bracket in March Madness are one in 9.2 quintillion. They are 1 in 120.2 billion if you know something about basketball. Your odds of being struck by lightning are 1 in 15,300. Good luck if you entered my pool!
  • Take the poll: How do you feel about our support for Ukraine? Let us know.

Have a nice day.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.