OPINION - Ron DeSantis’s casual dismissal of the war has Ukrainians worried

Ben Judah (Handout)
Ben Judah (Handout)

In Washington, the war in Ukraine can day-in, day-out feel like a bureaucratic exercise. A question of overseeing huge resources, votes in Congress and overworked diplomats on another flight out of Dulles. More like a war game, for American players, than an actual war. But on Tuesday that spell briefly broke. Russia’s downing of an American Reaper Drone was a sudden reminder of where we have ended up. It hit just at the moment that questions are resurfacing about America’s long term commitment to the war. Is the US going to keep protecting Ukraine all the way — or now, really, just the Democrats?

This week it wasn’t just an American drone that sank to the bottom of the Black Sea.

As the Pentagon launched an emergency search operation to stop the remains of the Reaper — packed with highly sensitive technology — from falling into Russian hands, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky’s staunchest allies on the Hill were fretting about their own politics letting them down. Their minds suddenly suddenly focused back home because Florida’s popular governor Ron DeSantis, widely expected to throw his hat into the ring for the Republican party nomination in 2024, told Fox News on Monday that defending Ukraine is not a “vital” interest.

Losing long-term Republican support is worse for Ukraine than losing a city like Bakhmut. Ukrainian diplomats know this. This is why DeSantis breaking his previous silence on the conflict feels like such a blow. Polls show that between them Donald Trump — promising peace in 24 hours — and the man he calls “Ron DeSanctimonious” command some three-quarters of the Republican primary vote. While it may be true that the overwhelming majority of Republicans on the Hill are strongly pro-Ukraine their track record of standing up to Trump indicates that they have little pull on their base.

In spirit this is now the party of Donald Trump, not Ronald Reagan — with just a lot of people like Lindsey Graham (who condemned DeSantis’s comments) still working for it. As it stands it looks like Trump, aged 76, will comfortably clinch the nomination, pushing the nation through another electoral cycle dominated by his anti-war views. As a result, it means Joe Biden, aged 80, will comfortably win re-election in turn. But we are a long way from November 2024. The diplomatic telegrams being sent out of Kalorama may be predicting Democrats in the White House for the long-haul but they are also noting a worsening trend not only for Ukraine but Europe as a whole overall.

The US is becoming erratic. As the DC foreign policy writer Damir Marusic has argued, whiplash risks being the trend not the exception because it lacks a stable consensus. Its foreign policy now is as much of a product of its partisan bloodsports as anything else. This is something European officialdom has been in denial about.

With luck, there could be more than five more years of a strong pro-Kyiv lead from the White House. But with the Republicans turning against supporting Ukraine indefinitely, it will not be a constant like in the Cold War. That unity is developing around competition and confrontation with China, which risks leaving Russia and its revanchism on the plate of Europe.

This is what the Kremlin hopes to leverage. That it can hold on, dig in and raise the temperature just enough in Washington — like with the downing of the Reaper — to cause politicians like DeSantis to think the war is a distraction from the clash to come against China, or growing too unpopular with their base. This is why, with the Russian offensive generating exhaustion and losses not gains, its threats against the US are shooting up. It is an old story in war: when you can’t win on the battlefield, you can attempt to undermine your opponent politically — with Russian ministers again issuing never before acted upon threats to hit Western transfers to Ukraine.

Biden, Trump, DeSantis. These personalities will come and go: but the identities they represent between Europe-first, America-first and Asia-first will continue to battle it out for decades to come.

Britain, with its every diplomat, will need to influence them. And the better connected and respected the country is in Europe again — the easier that will be to do.

Ben Judah is the author of the forthcoming This Is Europe: How We Live Now published in June