A week after calling the war between Ukraine and Russia a “territorial dispute,” Ron DeSantis abruptly changed his message in an interview published Wednesday, saying Russia was wrong to invade its neighboring country and calling for Vladimir Putin to be held accountable.
“I think he is a war criminal,” the Republican Florida governor told the New York Post’s Piers Morgan.
Ukraine, he added, has a “right to that territory.”
“If I could snap my fingers, I’d give it back to Ukraine 100%,” said DeSantis, who is seen as likely to launch a presidential campaign later this year. “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.”
The governor was rebuked last week, including by some Republican leaders, after he issued a statement to Fox News host Tucker Carlson calling the Ukraine-Russia conflict a “territorial dispute” that was not in the United States’ “vital” interest. Critics charged that DeSantis was mimicking former President Donald Trump’s foreign policy, a position at odds not only with the Republican Party’s traditionally hawkish view of Russia but the governor’s own previous positions on Ukraine.
The comments even received a response from Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who argued they were shortsighted.
In Wednesday’s interview, DeSantis said his reference to a “territorial dispute” was “mischaracterized” but acknowledged he could have more clearly stated his view.
The governor reiterated he doesn’t think American troops should become involved in the conflict — a position shared by Democratic President Joe Biden — and predicted Putin would not win the war.
“I think those regions in the (eastern) border, and Crimea, are likely to be a stalemate for quite some time, and unfortunately a lot of people will end up dying if that’s the case,” he told the New York Post. “But I do not think it’s going to end with Putin being victorious. I do not think the Ukrainian government is going to be toppled by him, and I think that’s a good thing.”
DeSantis is running second in many early polls of the 2024 GOP presidential primary, trailing only Trump despite not yet formally entering the race.
Trump, as he has begun to do regularly, criticized DeSantis again in a statement Wednesday, arguing that DeSantis’ record as governor on issues ranging from crime to deaths from the coronavirus was unimpressive.
“The fact is, Ron is an average Governor, but the best by far in the Country in one category, Public Relations, where he easily ranks Number One — But it is all a Mirage, just look at the facts and figures, they don’t lie — And we don’t want Ron as our President!” Trump said.