Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, the top two Republicans in polling regarding the 2024 presidential nomination, have said defending Ukraine was not a vital US interest, in remarks that will demoralise Kyiv and encourage Vladimir Putin to believe that time is on his side.
Trump, a longstanding Putin admirer, has been consistently sceptical about US support for Ukraine, and has suggested he could broker a peace deal, involving Ukraine surrendering territory. DeSantis had previously tried to dodge questions on Ukraine, and his new comments are likely to shift sentiment in the Republican party further from support of Ukraine.
Both men answered a questionnaire from Tucker Carlson, the primetime Fox News host, who posted the responses to Twitter.
DeSantis, the governor of Florida, said the US should not “become further entangled” in the Russia-Ukraine war.
Trump, the former president who dominates polling, said the Ukraine war was not a vital US interest “but it is for Europe … that is why Europe should be paying far more than we are, or equal”.
The remarks come at a time of military stalemate, with neither side proving able to make significant breakthroughs on the battlefield. Ukraine is hoping to break the impasse this spring, but it is unclear whether it has enough weapons and experienced soldiers to achieve its aims.
Analysts have said that the longer the war continues, the better Putin’s chances, as Kyiv’s western backers get weary of the cost, and Russia’s greater population becomes an increasingly important factor.
To Carlson, DeSantis said: “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 also accused Joe Biden of providing “a virtual blank cheque” to Ukraine and said: “Without question, peace should be the objective. The US should not provide assistance that could require the deployment of American troops or enable Ukraine to engage in offensive operations beyond its borders.”
Biden has said US troops will not be deployed and has not encouraged Kyiv to go beyond attempting to expel its invaders.
“F-16s and long-range missiles should … be off the table,” DeSantis said. “These moves would risk explicitly drawing the United States … closer to a hot war between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. That risk is unacceptable.”
The governor also said “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”.
Apart from an off-the-cuff Biden remark a year ago, saying that Putin “cannot remain in power”, the administration has been adamant it is not pursuing regime change.
In his response to Carlson, Trump claimed: “Russia would definitely not have raided and attacked Ukraine if I was your president.”
Characteristically, he couched policy prescriptions in financial terms, claiming the US was being conned by its European allies. In his four years in power, Trump was regularly accused of subservience towards Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
While Senate Republicans are broadly supportive of US military backing for Ukraine, a growing group of hard-right representatives in the House are calling for it to end. With his remarks, DeSantis took sides in a fierce debate within his party.
Douglas London, a former senior CIA official, suggested the remarks could be tactical.
“DeSantis dismissal of Russia’s war in Ukraine as a vital US interest will invite the Kremlin’s cyber [and] disinformation tools to amplify his message, charge his base and further sow American division,” London said on Twitter.
Mark Hertling, a retired general and CNN national security analyst, said: “I was taught and I believe US domestic and international policies are driven foremost by our nation’s values. Independence, sovereignty, respect for individual freedoms and rights, rule of law, dignity of fellow humans … That’s why we help Ukraine.”
DeSantis’s characterisation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “territorial dispute” drew particularly fierce fire.
Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic operative and pollster, said Republicans’ “rancid appeasement of Putin has been among the darkest chapters in all of American history. DeSantis parrots Kremlin taking points on Ukraine, again”.
Other candidates and prospective candidates also answered Carlson’s questions.
The former vice-president Mike Pence cited Ronald Reagan in describing the need to stand up to Russia, thereby aligning himself with Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader.
“I would say anyone that thinks … Putin will stop at Ukraine is wrong,” Pence said.
Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, issued a statement in favour of continued military support for Ukraine.
“Russia’s objective is to take over all of Ukraine by military force. Our objective should be to help the Ukrainians prevent that from happening,” Haley said on Tuesday.
Bill Kristol, a conservative Trump critic, asked: “Will ‘Republican internationalists and hawkish elements in the party’s donor class’ rally to candidates like Pence, Haley or Christie now that DeSantis has joined Team Tucker on Ukraine? Or will they once again submit, and embrace dangerous demagoguery?”
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