Analysis: Why the 2024 shadow campaign between Trump and DeSantis should worry Ukraine
Donald Trump says he’d end the war in Ukraine in one day and avert World War III, while Ron DeSantis is keener on waging a culture war than a proxy one to save a foreign democracy.
The ex-president and the Florida governor’s escalating shadow campaign for the 2024 Republican nomination is likely to exacerbate the already growing antipathy among grassroots conservatives for being Ukraine’s arsenal of democracy.
This should worry the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has profusely thanked Americans for their multi-billion dollar generosity while warning he will keep asking for more.
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A bitter Republican primary that turns on the isolationist sentiment of the party’s “Make America Great Again” wing could produce a nominee, and possibly a 47th president, who could shelve the assurance of Joe Biden that Americans will stand by Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”
There are already early signs of ebbing public support for Biden’s repeated aid and arms packages for Ukraine a year after Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion. And House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Trump ally, has warned against a “blank check” for Ukraine. The reaction of the ex-president’s proteges in the GOP-controlled House to Biden’s daring secret visit to Kyiv last month suggests that the 2024 Republican nominee will surely cater to a base that believes the US should spend its money securing its own borders instead of Ukraine’s and that Biden cares more for foreigners than Americans.
Recent polling helps explain the GOP positioning on Ukraine. Support for the US providing weapons to the country has decreased compared with last spring, according to an AP-NORC survey conducted in late January, and that decline was sharper among Republicans – down to 39% from 53% in May 2022.
Trump has no love lost for Zelensky, after what he misleading described as their “perfect” 2019 phone call, in which the then-president tried to use US military aid to extort his counterpart into opening an investigation into Biden. The incident led to Trump’s first impeachment. More recently, in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday, Trump seemed eager to rekindle his genuflecting relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom much of the world now regards as a war criminal. And the need to defend a democracy that is under attack is a foreign concept to Trump at home, let alone abroad.
“Before I even arrive at the Oval Office, I will have the disastrous war between Russia and Ukraine settled. … I will get the problem solved. And I will get it solved in rapid order and it will take me no longer than one day,” Trump said. “I know exactly what to say to each of them,” he added, before hinting at a potential strategy of siding with the aggressor in the war by reminding his audience, “I got along very well with Putin.”
DeSantis, whose foreign policy views remain mostly a mystery, has not been as clear as Trump on what he would do in Ukraine. After all, he’s not even a declared candidate yet, despite fresh signs he is heading in that direction. But he appeared to try to catch up with Trump when warning in a recent Fox News interview that the Biden administration had “no clear, strategic objective identified” in Ukraine and that it was not in US interests to get involved in a proxy war with China there, after the White House warned Beijing could start sending arms to Russia.
This is an evolution from his position as a congressman in 2014 and 2015, when he strongly supported arming Ukraine to fight Russia, CNN’s KFile reported.
Putin, of course, is listening. The Russian leader appears to be digging in for a forever war in Ukraine – where he has already been entrenched since 2014 after the illegal annexation of Crimea. Even hints that a new Republican president would cut Kyiv loose would play into his apparent belief that, eventually, the West will get tired and splinter. After all, Germany only agreed to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine after Biden also agreed that more advanced US M1 Abrams tanks would also be shipped to the battlefield.
And even if Kyiv prevails in the conflict, or reaches a currently unlikely peace deal with Moscow, its future could rely on being a de facto NATO protectorate armed with Western weapons and even security guarantees from major US or European powers that some future Republican presidents, judging by current rhetoric, might be loath to honor.
Not every Republican agrees with Trump or DeSantis on Ukraine. Many of the key committee chairmen in the House, for instance, back current or even increased aid and military hardware for Ukraine and support its call for F-16 fighter jets that Biden has declined to send. And several potential Republican primary candidates also support the US effort. Former US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who launched her campaign last month and paints herself as a would-be scourge of strongmen leaders like Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, tweeted last year: “This isn’t just a war for Ukraine, this is a war for freedom.”
But presidential primaries have a habit of defining a party’s positions at the extremes – and with Trump and DeSantis being seen as the current favorites, their rivals may come under increasing pressure to fall into line to ensure their own political viability.
Ukraine’s primary focus is on the battle, amid fresh signs that its desperate resistance in the city of Bakhmut may be about to be broken.
But the possibility of changing political conditions in the United States as a new White House campaign begins means that Zelensky’s desperation for more weapons and ammunition to eject Putin’s forces from Ukraine will only become more urgent.
Trump made clear in his appearance at CPAC that if he gets the chance to confront Biden in a repeat of the 2020 election, he will accuse the Democrat of leading the planet to the brink of disaster.
“I am the only candidate who can make this promise, I will prevent, very easily, World War III,” Trump said in a speech riddled with falsehoods. “We are going to have World War III, by the way, if something doesn’t happen fast.”
The former president is in some ways repeating his 2016 tactic of warning about America’s exposure to foreign wars. He’s trying to fan fatigue over US arms-length involvement in Ukraine as he did over the long conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And he drove home another familiar criticism of presidents who fixate on foreign policy by showing up in East Palestine, Ohio – at the site of a chemical spill after a freight train derailment – while Biden was visiting Europe last month.
“I sincerely hope that when your representatives and all of the politicians get here, including Biden, they get back from touring Ukraine, that he’s got some money left over,” Trump said.
CNN’s Kristen Holmes reported Monday that the former president also sees an opening to target DeSantis over his calls as a congressional candidate in 2012 to privatize some social benefits by suggesting he is not sufficiently in line with the GOP base in stopping financial and military aid to Ukraine.
“We are never going back to a party that wants to give unlimited money to fight foreign endless wars but demands we cut veteran benefits and retirement benefits at home,” Trump said during his CPAC speech.
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In his new book “The Courage to be Free,” published last week, the Florida governor doesn’t mention Ukraine. But he does criticize the mantra laid out by President George W. Bush in his second inaugural address – that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the liberty in other lands.” DeSantis writes that this “messianic impulse—that the US had both the right and the obligation to promote democracy, by force, if necessary, around the world — was grounded in Wilsonian moralism, not in a clear-eyed view of American interests.”
This perspective seems incompatible with Biden’s characterization of the US’ support for Ukraine as part of a vital national interest to protect democracy.
But DeSantis is tapping into a familiar seam of opinion.
The sense among many voters that Bush overreached and led Americans into disastrous years-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was not just a motivating force that helped the rise of Trump’s populist nationalism in the Republican Party. President Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination and the presidency in 2008 warning that he was against “dumb wars.”
There is some reluctance to get involved in foreign wars again among American voters on the right and left. A group of Democratic members of Congress, for example, last year called for negotiations to end the war, despite the lack of indications that Putin has any willingness to withdraw his troops. But they were criticized by their colleagues for such a move.
And Iraq and Afghanistan are not a clean analogy for Ukraine – whatever Republican candidates might say – since Biden has scrupulously avoided the involvement of any US forces, as he seeks to head off a dangerous direct clash with nuclear-armed Moscow.
Biden’s need to shore up public support for an extended commitment to Ukraine was one reason why he went to Ukraine to mark the first anniversary of the Russian invasion.
“When united, Americans of all political backgrounds decided that they would step up. The American people know it matters. Unchecked aggression is a threat to all of us,” Biden told Zelensky in Kyiv.
“You remind us that freedom is priceless; it’s worth fighting for for as long as it takes. And that’s how long we’re going to be with you, Mr. President: for as long as it takes.”
But with the battle on the edge of Europe not looking like it will end any time soon, Biden may have to make that case on the debate stage with a Republican nominee next year – which suggests the clock maybe ticking for Ukraine.