Ron DeSantis forced into U-turn after calling Ukraine war ‘territorial dispute’ | Republicans

Ron DeSantis has reversed his position on Ukraine, after facing widespread criticism for calling the Russian invasion a “territorial dispute”.

Speaking to Fox Nation in an interview to be broadcast in full on Thursday, the Florida governor and probable contender for the Republican presidential nomination said his “territorial dispute” remark had been “mischaracterised”.

“Obviously, Russia invaded – that was wrong,” he said. “They invaded Crimea and took that in 2014 – that was wrong.”

DeSantis also called Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, a “war criminal”.

The international criminal court has issued a warrant for Putin’s arrest. Though the US is not a member of the ICC, Joe Biden said the move was justified.

DeSantis said: “I don’t know about that route, but I do think that he should be held accountable.”

The Florida governor has not declared a run for the presidency but he is the only close challenger to Donald Trump in polling and is widely expected to enter the race this spring.

He made his “territorial dispute” remark last week, in answer to the Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The remark aligned DeSantis with Trump but also prompted fierce criticism across the political spectrum.

On Wednesday, Reed Galen, a Republican strategist turned anti-Trump campaigner, said: “DeSantis is a conventional politician. They’re polling like mad and found his Ukraine position is unpopular with general election Republicans. Also, donors hate it.”

DeSantis has also been criticised for favouring media outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch. Fox Nation and the New York Post, which excerpted the interview, are Murdoch properties.

Regarding his “territorial dispute” remark, DeSantis said: “What I’m referring to is where the fighting is going on now, which is that eastern border region [of the] Donbas, and then Crimea, and you have a situation where Russia has had that. I don’t think legitimately, but they had. There’s a lot of ethnic Russians there.

“So that’s some difficult fighting, and that’s what I was referring to. And so it wasn’t that I thought Russia had a right to that, and so if I should have made that more clear, I could have done it. But I think the larger point is, OK, Russia is not showing the ability to take over Ukraine, to topple the government or certainly to threaten Nato. That’s a good thing.

“I just don’t think that’s a sufficient interest for us to escalate more involvement. I would not want to see American troops involved there. But the idea that I think somehow Russia was justified [in invading] – that’s nonsense.”

Don Moynihan, a Georgetown policy professor, said DeSantis’s “walk-back of his Ukraine comments seems less clarifying than confusing. He is critical of Biden but it is not clear how his position on Ukraine is different: Putin is a war criminal who should not have invaded, no US troops.”

DeSantis also told Fox Nation Ukrainians “have the right to that territory”, adding: “If I could snap my fingers, I’d give it back to Ukraine 100%.

“But the reality is what is America’s involvement in terms of escalating with more weapons, and certainly ground troops I think would be a mistake. So, that was the point I was trying to make but Russia was wrong to invade. They were wrong to take Crimea.”

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