Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis joins FOX News Sean Hannity during a GOP town hall on July 21, 2021.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis joins FOX News Sean Hannity during a GOP town hall on July 21, 2021. (Pedro Portal/El Nuevo Herald/TNS)

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — As a junior U.S. congressman from Florida in 2014, Ron DeSantis accused Moscow of "violating Ukrainian sovereignty," accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of creating a "pretext" to invade its neighbor, and sought assurances from the Obama administration that the United States would stand by its NATO allies.

In contrast, DeSantis now calls Russia's invasion of Ukraine a "territorial dispute" that is not core to U.S. interests, a position he made clear earlier this week in a statement to a Fox News host.

DeSantis' apparent policy reversal comes amid a debate within the Republican Party over whether the United States should continue supporting Ukraine and the NATO alliance — the foundation of security in Europe since the end of World War II — that began when former President Donald Trump in 2016 openly questioned U.S. commitments to European defense.

Russian forces invaded and occupied the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014, and supported a separatist movement that year in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine that preceded Putin's full-scale invasion of the country last year.

In a May 2014 congressional hearing, DeSantis pressed Victoria Nuland, then a senior diplomat in the Obama administration, on whether the White House was assuring NATO allies that the U.S. would "clearly" invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter — which states that an attack on one member nation is an attack on all – in the event that Putin were to strike the alliance.

DeSantis asked Nuland whether the administration had assessed "that the actions of Russia may require us to relook at our force posture in Europe, and our requirements for future deployments, exercises and training in the region."

"In light of what has happened with Ukraine, Putin has taken this position that well, look, all these people are Russians — I am actually saving them by violating Ukrainian sovereignty," DeSantis said. "And that same argument could obviously be applied to Latvia, Estonia, and some of our NATO allies, because they have ethnic Russian populations."

"If that kind of pretext were used in some place like Latvia," he continued, "the administration's position would be that Article 5 of NATO would, clearly, be invoked?"

"Absolutely. We have a solemn treaty commitment to our NATO allies," Nuland said.

DeSantis replied that NATO allies such as Latvia seemed to be in doubt that Obama would stand by U.S. commitments to Article 5, fueling fears in eastern Europe.

"Even though we have assured them that we stand shoulder to shoulder, there is a lot of fear about what would happen and whether we would be willing, if push came to shove, to actually stand with them," DeSantis said.

Previously reported comments from DeSantis' tenure as a congressman show that he pushed the Obama administration to provide weapons to the Ukrainians.

"We in the Congress have been urging the president, I've been, to provide arms to Ukraine. They want to fight their good fight. They're not asking us to fight it for them. And the president has steadfastly refused. And I think that that's a mistake," DeSantis said in 2015.

DeSantis' latest comments on the matter were issued through a statement to Tucker Carlson, a Fox News host who has said for years that he is "rooting" for Russia in its war against Ukraine.

"While the U.S. has many vital national interests — securing our borders, addressing the crisis of readiness with 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 told Carlson.

DeSantis' office did not respond to a request for comment.

The Florida governor's statement has led to an outcry among top Republican lawmakers who have declared Ukraine's fight for freedom and democracy as a vital U.S. interest.

While a majority of Americans support continuing U.S. support for Ukraine, polls show that Republican voters are split on the matter.

On Thursday, Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, invited the Florida governor to visit the country to witness the conflict himself.

"We are sure that as a former military officer deployed to a combat zone, Governor @RonDeSantisFL knows the difference between a 'dispute' and war," Nikolenko wrote on Twitter. "We invite him to visit Ukraine to get a deeper understanding of Russia's full-scale invasion and the threats it poses to U.S. interests."

Miami Herald reporter Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this article.

©2023 McClatchy Washington Bureau.

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