Ron DeSantis walks back stance on Russia-Ukraine war, calls Putin a 'war criminal'

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a campaign event Friday, March 10, 2023, in Davenport, Iowa.
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday backtracked on a comment made earlier this month calling Russia's war in Ukraine a "territorial dispute," hardening his stance against Russian President Vladimir Putin and the conflict.

DeSantis previously aligned himself with former President Donald Trump — and in conflict with other 2024 presidential hopefuls — on the role America's should play in Ukraine's efforts to beat back Russia's assault on the nation.

Here's what we know.

DeSantis walks back Ukraine comment

DeSantis told Fox News Host Tucker Carlson earlier this month that aiding Ukraine is not a “vital” interest for the United States, calling the war a "territorial dispute" between Russia and Ukraine.

The comments drew criticism from other Republicans and 2024 presidential candidates.

  • In excerpts of an interview with Piers Morgan, set to air Thursday on Fox Nation, DeSantis said his critics misconstrued the remark. “I think it’s been mischaracterized,” he told Morgan, according to the excerpts. “Obviously, Russia invaded — that was wrong. They invaded Crimea and took that in 2014 — that was wrong.”

  • DeSantis also toughened his rhetoric against Putin, calling him a “war criminal” who should be "held accountable" for his actions.

Lindsey Graham, outspoken about DeSantis' previous stance, commends change

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was one of the most vocal GOP critics of DeSantis' previous stance, applauded DeSantis' for recanting his stance.

"The more you pay attention to what's going on in Ukraine, the more resolve you'll have to hold Putin accountable. And I applaud the governor," Graham told USA TODAY. "The first sign of leadership is to be able to adjust. And when Ron said what he did yesterday, it was, I think, based on his taking a second look at this. And it was a good day for the cause."

Where other GOP presidential hopefuls stand on Ukraine

DeSantis' earlier comments put him in line with Trump's views on the America's role in the Russia-Ukraine war, according to Carlson's questionnaire.

  • Trump said that supporting Ukraine is not a "vital" interest for the U.S., though it is for Europe. He also said that Russia would have "never attacked Ukraine" if he were president.

But other high-profile presidential candidates or possible candidates have taken vastly different stances.

  • Former Vice President Mike Pence told Carlson that the GOP has no room for Putin apologists, calling the Russian president a dictator. "When the United States supports Ukraine in their fight against Putin, we follow the Reagan doctrine, and we support those who fight our enemies on their shores, so we will not have to fight them ourselves," he said.

  • Nikki Haley, former U.N. ambassador, said that the U.S. should not send "American troops" or "cash or blank checks," but that it "should provide conventional weapons that enable Ukraine to effectively stop the Russian invasion and occupation of its land." She also said America is "far better off with a Ukrainian victory than a Russian victory."

DeSantis has not announced whether he will run for president in 2024, though he is widely viewed as a frontrunner for the Republican nomination, alongside Trump.

Poll: DeSantis' Ukraine views not popular among public

DeSantis' previous statement on Ukraine also put him at odds with the American public, according to a new Yahoo/YouGov poll.

  • Almost half of respondents (49%) said it's in the U.S.' best interests to help Ukraine stop Russia's invasion, with just under a third (32%) saying America should not get involved.

  • Some 56% of respondents said the conflict is best described as an "invasion of Ukraine by Russia" compared to 30% who said it was a territorial dispute.

  • However, when asked plainly about DeSantis' statement that “while the U.S. has many vital national interests … becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them,” 44% either strongly or somewhat agreed, while 38% strongly or somewhat disagreed.

The survey of 1,582 adults, taken March 16-20 online has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.7%.

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Contributing: Associated Press, Sarah Elbeshbishi

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ron DeSantis hardens stance on Russia-Ukraine war after backlash