By MEG KINNARD
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is walking back his characterization of Russia’s war in Ukraine as a “territorial dispute,” following criticism from a number of fellow Republicans who expressed concern about the potential 2024 presidential candidate’s dismissive description of the conflict.
In excerpts of an interview with Piers Morgan set to air Thursday on Fox Nation, DeSantis said his earlier comments referenced ongoing fighting in the eastern Donbas region, as well as Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea. Ukraine’s borders are internationally recognized, including by the United Nations.
“What I’m referring to is where the fighting is going on now, which is that eastern border region Donbas, and then Crimea, and you have a situation where Russia has had that. I don’t think legitimately, but they had,” DeSantis said, according to excerpts. “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.”
DeSantis made his initial comments last week in a written response to questions sent to declared and potential GOP presidential candidates by Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The Florida governor, seen as a top rival to former President Donald Trump for the 2024 GOP nomination, said that defending Ukraine wasn’t a national security priority for the U.S., and he downplayed the Russian invasion.
“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,” DeSantis wrote, echoing how Russia has characterized its ongoing invasion.
The day responses were posted, Trump told reporters traveling with him that DeSantis’ answers were just “following what I am saying.” A day later, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — already in the 2024 GOP field — said she agreed with Trump that “DeSantis is copying him.” In an op-ed Monday, she wrote that the characterization of the war as a “territorial dispute” represented “weakness.”
A number of Republican senators have also weighed in with criticism. In an interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said DeSantis “doesn’t deal with foreign policy every day as governor,” adding that “foreign policy is all about nuance.” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has endorsed Trump’s 2024 campaign, told Fox News that DeSantis “is basically taking the Chinese position when it comes to Russia’s invasion.”
Republican Sens. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, John Cornyn of Texas and Roger Wicker of Mississippi said they disagreed with DeSantis’ framing.
In the interview with Morgan, DeSantis sought to toughen his position toward Russia, calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” and arguing that his detractors had incorrectly characterized his “territorial dispute” remarks.
“I think it’s been mischaracterized,” he told Morgan, according to excerpts. “Obviously, Russia invaded — that was wrong. They invaded Crimea and took that in 2014 — that was wrong.”
Democrats have also seized on DeSantis’ apparent shifting stance, blasting out emails rounding up the GOP criticism and saying DeSantis’ “stumbling over this answer makes clear he is out of his depth.”
Asked by The Atlantic about DeSantis’ initial comments, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy suggested that failure to act on Russia’s aggression in his country could ultimately draw the U.S. into a conflict if incursions are also made into NATO member countries.
“When they will occupy NATO countries, and also be on the borders of Poland and maybe fight with Poland, the question is: Will you send all your soldiers with weapons, all your pilots, all your ships? Will you send tanks and armored vehicles with your young people? Will you do it?” Zelenskyy said. “Because if you will not do it, you will have no NATO.”
Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP