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Ron DeSantis is using Ukraine aid to win over the GOP base

In recent statements, DeSantis is the latest GOP leader to break sharply from the party’s support for Ukraine.

Ron DeSantis holding a microphone onstage beside an American flag.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to Iowa voters gathered at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on March 10, 2023 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

The Republican Party is divided on whether the US should continue to support Ukraine in its war with Russia, and this week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made it clear he’s aligned with those wary about continuing to provide aid.

“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, who’s widely expected to run for president, wrote in answer to a questionnaire Fox News host Tucker Carlson sent to possible 2024 contenders. Carlson read DeSantis’s reply on air, and later shared it on Twitter.

DeSantis’s comments highlight a growing rift in the Republican Party on this subject. His stance echoes that of former President Donald Trump, who has called for Russia and Ukraine “to make a deal” and argued, “death and destruction must end now.” Far-right members of the House have also called for the US to wind down its aid to Ukraine, which has topped $113 billion. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has said he believes the US is spending too much with too few guardrails.

Other prominent Republicans, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell; former Vice President Mike Pence, who’s also expected to run for president in 2024; and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, who’s already declared her candidacy, have stressed the need to support Ukraine and said that the Biden administration isn’t doing enough.

Many of the top Republicans who support aid were quick to respond to DeSantis’s comments. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and John Cornyn (R-TX) reiterated the importance of backing Ukraine, emphasizing the need to curb further Russian aggression. Cornyn, especially, suggested DeSantis’s stances may be putting electoral concerns over security factors — since some Republican voters’ support for Ukraine aid has declined over the last year.

“I’m disturbed by it. I think he’s a smart guy,” Cornyn told Politico. “I want to find out more about it, but I hope he feels like he doesn’t need to take that Tucker Carlson line to be competitive in the primary. It’s important for us to continue to support Ukrainians for our own security.”

The issue could become a prominent fault line in the 2024 Republican primaries, with aid to Ukraine potentially less than guaranteed if a GOP administration were to take over. It also reflects a split in the GOP’s base — one both current and potential presidential candidates are eager to capitalize on.

What the Republican split could mean moving forward

In the House, top Republicans like House Foreign Affairs Chair Michael McCaul (TX) have argued that the Biden administration should be providing more military aid, while Trump-aligned members like Rep. Matt Gaetz (FL) say that more resources should be directed at home.

The Biden administration has framed the Russia-Ukraine conflict as central to defending democracy and staving off more Russian military action elsewhere. The Republicans who support Ukraine have made similar arguments. Those, like DeSantis, who think the US should take a more isolationist posture, however, claim there isn’t enough accountability in how Ukraine aid has been spent and argue that the US is neglecting issues like the southern border.

Increasingly, Republicans have embraced concerns about Ukraine support, though a plurality still appears to back aid efforts. A January Pew poll found 40 percent of those who identify as Republican or lean that way say that the US is giving too much aid to Ukraine, and 41 percent saying the US is either not giving enough or just enough. The share of Republicans who think the US has given too much aid has jumped significantly. In a March 2022 Pew poll, only 9 percent of Republicans surveyed felt that way.

Other surveys have captured similar trends. In May 2022, 53 percent of Republicans supported providing weapons to Ukraine, but that number fell to 39 percent in January 2023, according to an AP poll. Similarly, 28 percent of Republicans supported direct financial aid to Ukraine in May 2022, while 21 percent did so in January 2023.

In that time, the nature of US aid changed as well. Since last year, the US has given more weapons it was initially hesitant to share, including a fleet of armored vehicles along with missiles and rockets. The shifts in public support also can’t be divorced from the rhetoric from anti-interventionist Republican leaders and pundits, with personalities like Carlson and others agitating for months against aid. In some ways, DeSantis is reflective of changing Republican stances on Ukraine: He argued for aid as a lawmaker during the Obama administration.

There’s an ongoing question regarding whether some Republicans’ concerns will translate to less support from Congress in the future. In December, Congress approved $45 billion in aid to Ukraine as part of its annual appropriations bills, a move some Republicans balked at. And in May of last year, 57 House Republicans voted against a standalone bill with Ukraine aid. If a segment of the House GOP continues to resist Ukraine funding, that could jeopardize aid, depending on how willing House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is to buck his more conservative members.

In the last year, Biden’s backing for Ukraine has been unwavering and a central component of the support the country has received against Russia as the war has continued. At the moment, it seems that if a more isolationist Republican were to win the presidency in 2024, Ukraine may find itself without a key ally.

Update, March 15, 10:20 am ET: This story was originally published on March 14 and has been updated to include Republican senators’ comments on Ukraine.