WASHINGTON—Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a likely 2024 Republican presidential candidate, sought to qualify his recent contentious remarks that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a “territorial dispute” and not vital to U.S. interests.
“Well, I think it’s been mischaracterized,” he told broadcaster Piers Morgan for an interview to be shown Thursday on the streaming service Fox Nation. Mr. Morgan included the comments in a column Wednesday evening for the New York Post.
“Obviously, Russia invaded. That was wrong,” Mr. DeSantis said, according to the column. “They invaded Crimea and took that in 2014. That was wrong.”
He added, “What I’m referring to is where the fighting is going on now which is that eastern border region Donbas, and then Crimea, and you have a situation where Russia has had that. I don’t think legitimately but they had…so it wasn’t that I thought Russia had a right to that.’’
But, Mr. DeSantis said, “the reality is what is America’s involvement in terms of escalating with more weapons, and certainly ground troops I think would be a mistake.”
Mr. DeSantis said in a statement last week that the U.S. shouldn’t necessarily help defend Ukraine against Russia’s invasion and should instead focus resources on issues closer to home.
It aligned him with the position of former President Donald Trump and some conservatives who have increasingly questioned the tens of billions the U.S. has provided in security assistance to Ukraine. Polling shows a steady decline in Republican support for aiding Ukraine over the past year.
“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,” Mr. DeSantis said in the statement, which was broadcast on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fox News.
The statement was in response to a questionnaire Mr. Carlson’s show sent to all major prospective GOP presidential candidates. Mr. DeSantis is the strongest challenger to Mr. Trump in hypothetical primary polls.
His comments on Mr. Carlson’s show drew considerable backlash from some Republicans, including a host of lawmakers on Capitol Hill, more-traditional conservative leaders and fellow prospective presidential candidates such as former Vice President Mike Pence.
“The war in Ukraine is not a territorial dispute,” Mr. Pence told a crowd in Iowa on Saturday to applause. “It is a Russian invasion and I believe the United States of America needs to continue to demand that the free world join us in giving the courageous fighters in Ukraine the resources that they need to repel the Russian invasion. It’s not our war, but freedom is our fight.”
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who is officially in the race, said Monday on Fox News that China would win if Russia prevailed. “This is not a territorial dispute. This is a fight for freedom and it is a fight we have to win.” She added, “This is not the time to get weak in the knees on Russia.”
Fox Corp. and News Corp, the parent of Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones & Co., share common ownership. News Corp also owns the New York Post.
Some critics pointed out that as a congressman, Mr. DeSantis espoused a hawkish foreign policy view and had criticized the Obama administration for not providing certain military aid to Ukraine.
In the interview with Mr. Morgan, the governor, when asked about Russian President Vladimir Putin, called him hostile to the U.S.
“He’s basically a gas station with a bunch of nuclear weapons. And so for us, one of the things we could be doing better is utilizing our own energy resources in the United States,” said Mr. DeSantis, according to excerpts of the interview released by Fox Nation. He said Mr. Putin should be held accountable for alleged war crimes.
Asked about the threat of China taking action against Taiwan, Mr. DeSantis said: “I think overall, the number one issue that we face internationally is checking the growth and the rise of China. They’re much more powerful, I think, than Putin and Russia are. And they really represent the biggest threat that we’ve seen to our ability to lead since the Soviet Union.”