The rise of Donald Trump created an entire cottage industry of pundits, especially former Republicans, whose entire oeuvre, audience, and business model are built around denouncing Trump and wielding him as a cudgel against the Republican Party. People reinvented their entire identities
around being anti-Trump. While every ideological niche holds its own risks of being blinded by partisanship or ideology or captured by one’s audience or sources, it is especially tenuous to have your entire career wrapped up in the long-term political viability of one 76-year-old man as your foil. Among other things, this creates a desperate need to simultaneously prop up Trump while claiming that anyone who defeats Trump must be exactly the same as Trump, only more so.
Understanding this dynamic explains a lot about the line that Tim Miller and Amanda Carpenter of the Bulwark have taken on Ron DeSantis and Ukraine following the Florida governor’s comments Monday on Fox & Friends. Miller says that DeSantis “blames US for Russian invasion of Ukraine – Attacks US president while in war zone – Signals we should dial back support for Ukraine – minimizes RUS threat – Anti Afghanistan withdrawal – Bellicose talk about China.” (Miller pretends that this is a “first look at DeSantis foreign policy” as if there is not a record of past statements and votes). Carpenter echoed this, claiming that “DeSantis says that Biden is to blame for Russian aggression.” She expands on this in a column claiming that DeSantis “blame[d] Biden for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.”
Others echoed versions of this theme that DeSantis is somehow part of a “blame America” caucus. Jennifer Rubin claimed that “DeSantis pandered to pro-Russian apologists.” Jonathan Chait, in a column entitled “Ron DeSantis Goes Full Trump on Ukraine,” wrote that DeSantis “blamed the invasion not on Vladimir Putin but on Joe Biden.” Steve Benen asserted that DeSantis “suggested his own country deserves part of the blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
Here’s what is really going on. Vladimir Putin’s own propaganda line is that Ukraine, NATO, the EU, and/or the U.S. are to blame for his aggression by being too provocative. His stated grievances include various steps taken over the past decade to oust a pro-Russian regime in Ukraine, resist Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and try to knit Ukraine closer to the West and arm its military in order to defend its survival as a sovereign state. There are, in fact, voices on the American right (many of them of the Trumpier variety) who echo versions of this argument.
Here’s the problem for Miller, Carpenter, and the rest: This is the opposite of the argument DeSantis is making, which is that Biden helped provoke the invasion by weakness: by his retreat from Afghanistan, by inadequate armament of Ukraine, especially during the Obama years, and by Biden’s “minor incursion” statement implying that the U.S. would do nothing if Putin invaded (which was followed by a dramatic escalation by Putin). This is a traditionally and conventionally hawkish critique of the American president for failing to deter a bad actor who would understand only strength and resolve. In the aftermath of the invasion, majorities of Americans concluded that it would not have happened if Donald Trump was still president.
As Aaron Blake of the Washington Post notes, DeSantis’s taking this line is consistent with his own record in Congress:
At a 2014 hearing, DeSantis warned that Putin’s justification — that Crimea was largely composed of ethnic Russians — could be extended to other nations and even some NATO members such as Latvia and Estonia. He pressed an Obama State Department official to confirm that the United States would defend those countries from a Russian incursion . . . under Article 5 of the NATO charter. In a 2015 interview on Fox Business Network, DeSantis criticized Obama for not giving Ukraine both defensive and offensive weapons, saying, “If you had a Reagan-esque policy of strength, I think you would see people like Putin not want to mess with us.”
At a 2017 hearing on Russia, DeSantis criticized the lack of action after Putin went into both Crimea and Georgia, saying, “Russia expanded its influence over the eight years of the Obama administration in malevolent ways.” Crimea remained a focal point in 2018, when DeSantis told Fox News’s Sean Hannity, “They did nothing when Russia invaded Crimea, made incursions into Ukraine, went into Syria.” (DeSantis also used the interview to praise Trump’s choice of uber-hawk John Bolton as national security adviser.)
That same year . . . DeSantis expanded on his view of the costs of inaction in the face of Putin’s aggression. DeSantis said Putin “wants to reconstitute the Russian Empire,” and, “I think that he’s been a threat for a long time.” DeSantis even gently chided then-President Trump for speaking positively about having a relationship with Putin: “You’re better off dealing with Putin by being strong. . . . When Putin sees he can gain an inch, he’s apt to take a mile. And basically, if America’s not going to give him any pushback, I think he’s going to continue to try to expand Russian influence.”
Four days after the war started in February, 2022, DeSantis called Putin an “authoritarian gas-station attendant” and suggested that the U.S. and Europe should wean themselves off of Russian energy exports in the hopes that this would cause Russian oligarchs to overthrow Putin. His remarks then were consistent with his stance today: