DeSantis says Ukraine cease-fire is 'in everybody's interest'
The Washington Post April 26, 2023
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who has moved toward entering the presidential race, said in an interview Tuesday it is "in everybody's interest to try to get to a place where we can have a cease-fire" in Ukraine — a message out of step with the Biden administration, which has called negotiations with Russia untenable and says cease-fires would allow the country to rest and rearm.
Representatives for DeSantis did not immediately clarify what conditions he would consider acceptable for a cease-fire. But the comments deepened a contrast with many Democratic and Republican leaders who have focused on supporting Ukraine's fighting rather than pushing for talks or an agreement while Russia occupies significant territory. They potentially put him into closer alignment with former president Donald Trump, a 2024 rival who has suggested Ukraine and Russia should negotiate.
"You don't want to end up in like a [Battle of] Verdun situation, where you just have mass casualties, mass expense and end up with a stalemate," DeSantis said, referring to the longest battle of World War I. "It's in everybody's interest to try to get to a place where we can have a cease-fire," DeSantis said in an interview with Nikkei Asia. The Washington Post was not immediately able to review a fuller context of his remarks; Nikkei did not publish the full transcript or complete video of the interview.
DeSantis made the remarks in Japan during an international trade mission this week that has cast a spotlight on his foreign policy approach ahead of a 2024 presidential run. His stance on Russia's invasion of Ukraine in particular has come under scrutiny this year as he has shifted his posture. He drew rebukes from some in the GOP and angered some donors earlier this year when he referred to the war in Ukraine as a "territorial dispute," not crucial to U.S. interests.
DeSantis soon clarified that phrasing, which came in response to a Fox News questionnaire, claiming in a later interview with conservative commentator Piers Morgan his words were "mischaracterized." He also called Russian President Vladimir Putin a "war criminal." But he continued to voice skepticism of U.S. involvement in Ukraine, telling another interviewer he cares "more about securing our own border in the United States than I do about the Russia-Ukraine border."
In the interview with Nikkei Asia, he also said Europe should play a larger role in a war on their continent, echoing Trump's insistence that U.S. allies invest more in their defense. "If the Indo-Pacific is where most of the threats to us are, and that's going to be our focus, then the Europeans are going have to do more," DeSantis said.
Biden administration officials have signaled full support for Ukraine's fighting to retake its territory and called negotiations unworkable under Moscow's current position. They note Putin's demands that Ukraine cede its lost territory to engage in serious talks.
"The best way to hasten prospects for real diplomacy is to keep tilting the battlefield in Ukraine's favor," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said recently. He has also pushed back on other countries calling publicly for negotiations to end the conflict, such as China, and told United Nations Security Council members not to be "fooled by calls for a temporary or unconditional cease-fire" because Russia will use it to "consolidate control."
Many European leaders have taken a similar position. In a letter published Tuesday in Foreign Affairs, the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia said "we must continue supporting Ukraine until Russian forces withdraw from its territory entirely." The letter argued that ending the war with Russian control of Crimea and areas of eastern Ukraine would represent " an open invitation to all authoritarian lunatics" who invade their neighbors.
"A cease-fire that lasts is desirable," Robert Lieber, an author and professor emeritus of government and international affairs at Georgetown University, said in an interview Tuesday. "But it has to be under better conditions, and the Russians show no interest in it."
However, some have argued the U.S. should push harder diplomatically for Russia to end the war, and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested last year that negotiations at a point of weakness for Russia could be fruitful. "When there's an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it," Milley said. Administration officials said later that this did not signal any change in policy.
Walking back his "territorial dispute" phrasing in a March interview with Morgan, DeSantis said he was talking about the eastern Donbas region — a key target for Russia where the fighting now centers — and Crimea, a peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014.
"There's a lot of ethnic Russians there. So, that's some difficult fighting, and that's what I was referring to," DeSantis said, "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's stance on Ukraine breaks with some prominent Republicans but also reflects a growing GOP criticism of the U.S.'s approach to Ukraine. Nearly a year after Russia's invasion began, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found, 50 percent of Republicans say the U.S. is doing "too much" to support Ukraine, compared to 18 percent last April.
Trump, the polling leader for the GOP nomination in 2024, has often suggested he could quickly end the war in Ukraine without providing details, saying at one point that "it doesn't make sense that Russia and Ukraine aren't sitting down and working out some kind of an agreement." He has also suggested he could have prevented the war and potentially "negotiated" with Russia and "made a deal to take over something — you know, there are certain areas that are Russian-speaking areas."
The Washington Post's John Hudson contributed to this report.