Ron DeSantis Is Right About Ukraine

His statements have been hotly disputed, but not refuted.

Illustration collage of Ron DeSantis and a tank in Ukraine.
Paul Spella / The Atlantic; Ignacio Marin / Anadolu Agency / Getty; Cheny Orr / AFP / Getty

“While the U.S. has many vital national interests,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis wrote recently, “becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.”

The comments inspired a wave of disapproval from conservatives and Republicans, including The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the Washington Post columnist George Will, who quipped, “If that is his settled view after the dust settles and he elaborates on this, then he’s not fit to be president, period.”

As an inveterate critic of Woodrow Wilson, Will should know better. DeSantis was merely taking a realist foreign-policy stance at a time when elites in both parties have gotten into a dangerously Wilsonian frame of mind. With support for Ukraine aid falling among Republicans, DeSantis’s comments were also more in tune with where GOP voters are, and are likely to be in the months ahead.

The legal case against Russia is open-and-shut. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian government recognized the borders of the new Ukraine, and further guaranteed its sovereignty in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Ukraine is a sovereign state, entitled to political independence and territorial integrity. Russia’s war of aggression is clearly a violation of international law.

But the matter is more complicated than that. One of the most far-reaching consequences of Wilsonian idealism has been to turn all international conflicts into primarily legal disputes in which the key question is who is right and who is wrong. The trouble with that approach is that the strategic and historical dimensions of those conflicts tend to disappear from the policy calculus, with baleful consequences.

How Ukraine Became Independent

The hard truth is this: Ukraine’s 1991 borders were partly a subterfuge of Soviet propaganda and did not fully make sense for an independent country alongside Russia. Containing large swaths of historical Russia, millions of ethnic Russians, and a crucial Russian naval base at Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula (which was transferred to Ukraine only in 1954 and is home to few ethnic Ukrainians even now), those borders actually guaranteed Russian hegemony in the short term. They’re why pro-Russia presidential candidates won almost every election in Ukraine from 1991 until the “Euromaidan” revolution of 2014. Indeed, Ukrainian-nationalist parties have ruled for the past decade partly because the electorate no longer includes residents of the Donbas or Crimea, the heavily Russian areas that either broke away or were seized by Russia after the pro-Russian government was deposed in 2014.

Hence, from Russia’s point of view, the commitments of 1991 and 1994 were mostly a formality, because Moscow expected Ukraine to remain firmly in its orbit. But those guarantees only kicked an explosive can down the road, because if a strong Ukrainian-nationalist movement should ever arise, as it has now, oriented toward Europe and bent on independence from Russia, the 1991 borders would create a fatal conflict between Ukraine’s nationhood and that of the Russians, many of whom view Ukraine—especially east of the Dnipro River—as an inseparable part of Russia.

Russia may be waging a war of aggression as a matter of law, but as a matter of history and strategy it is moving to forestall a grave deterioration in its strategic position, with stakes that are almost as existential for it as they are for Ukraine. And as former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said recently, “Nuclear powers have never lost major conflicts on which their fate depends.”

When the U.S. agreed to recognize Ukraine in 1991, it should have realized that Ukraine’s borders could prove enormously destabilizing, like the nuclear forces and Black Sea fleet that Ukraine had also accidentally inherited and which the U.S. wisely insisted be transferred to Russia in 1993–94.

The U.S. should have treated the 1991 borders as provisional and encouraged Russia and Ukraine to agree on a peaceful adjustment. With Europe flourishing on one side and Russia a moribund kleptocracy on the other, Ukrainians’ desire for independence from Russia was almost certainly inevitable. As Ukrainian nationalism gathered strength, Russia could perhaps have been persuaded to agree to a territorial adjustment.

Governor DeSantis was right on another score: The proximate cause of the war was definitely a territorial dispute, but of a very special kind. After the Euromaidan revolution, Russia felt it had no choice but to annex Crimea, because it couldn’t risk losing Sevastopol. But it still did not annex the eastern Donbas, which it was also occupying, insisting instead on its reintegration into Ukraine under the terms of the Minsk Agreements of 2014 and 2015, which it saw as vitally necessary to restoring its control over the whole of Ukraine. For the same reason, Ukraine’s nationalists soured on the Minsk Agreements: With those territories in limbo, the nationalists had been able to achieve a degree of independence that would have been impossible otherwise.

America’s Blank Check

As tensions mounted in 2020 and 2021, Germany and France grew anxious to persuade Ukraine to implement the Minsk Agreements, in which all the major issues were territorial. But, with their customary professions of high moral and legal principle, the Americans undercut those diplomatic efforts, encouraging the Ukrainians to dig in their heels and dare Russia to do something about it. It was an implicit blank check and had the same effect as when the kaiser wrote one a century ago, namely to entice the recipient to risk a catastrophic war with Russia.

It is crucial to understand the dangerous role that America is playing. The sheer scale of U.S. aid to Ukraine has become a decisive factor in the course of the war. Don’t be deceived by President Joe Biden’s claims that we are helping Ukraine without getting involved in the conflict ourselves. Even according to the Defense Department’s own Law of War Manual, the U.S. is already a de facto belligerent in the Ukraine war.

The lack of strategy behind the deluge of American missiles and tanks flowing into Ukraine is frightening. The U.S. is giving Ukraine enough aid to prevent a Russian victory, but the stated aim of liberating all of Ukraine’s territory, “as long as it takes,” isn’t remotely plausible and is contradicted by other aspects of U.S. policy. This is not the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, where the Soviets could afford to cut their losses. Even a return to the status quo ante of January 2022 would likely be unacceptable to the Russians. The Russians are almost certainly prepared to lose—and kill—millions of people before giving up the territory they have now. And because the U.S. has thus far insisted that the weapons donated to Ukraine not be used inside Russia, U.S. strategy is currently optimized for making the war last as long as possible without a decisive result.

What’s more, even if Ukraine’s war aims could be achieved, what would Ukraine do then? It could either reintegrate the Russian populations and risk once again becoming a Russian puppet, or disenfranchise them through repression or wholesale expulsion, which, besides violating international humanitarian law, would likely trigger another war. Hence, Ukraine’s stated war aim—the complete liberation of its 1991 territory—might not even be desirable from Ukraine’s point of view.

America’s Vital Interests

The overriding priority of U.S. foreign policy in the century ahead will be to tame the rising power of China. DeSantis’s observation that “the Biden administration’s policies have driven Russia into a de facto alliance with China” is a crucial one. One might add that U.S. policy is accomplishing that quite against Moscow’s will, because a brief glance at the map suffices to see that China’s increasing control over its “near abroad” puts it on a collision course with Russia along a roughly 6,000-mile front, if you include buffer states. In the century ahead, Russia’s only alternative to domination by China is very likely an alliance with the United States, and that is an alliance the U.S. cannot afford to forfeit. Allowing Russia to slip into China’s orbit would bring Chinese power into the very heart of Europe.

To be sure, there is a “realist” case for supporting Ukraine in its stated war aims. The linchpin of that argument is an analogy to 1938: If Vladimir Putin isn’t stopped now, then, like Hitler, he will only try to seize more territory. That argument is creditable but misses a key difference between the two situations. In the 1930s, Czechoslovakia was the central pillar of the Allies’ entire defensive strategy. It had to be defended at any price—otherwise the correlation of forces would shift overwhelmingly in Germany’s favor, and Hitler’s conquest of Europe would become unstoppable. By contrast, even if Russia can overcome its surprising military weakness and defeat Ukraine, it will be no closer to realizing Putin’s impossible dream of reincorporating the Baltic states, which, while small, are firmly under NATO’s nuclear umbrella. Putin surely knows that every inch of NATO territory is hopelessly beyond his reach, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky must know that as well, his warnings to the contrary notwithstanding.

Ending the War

Before Woodrow Wilson left his dubious stamp on international relations, wars typically ended in peace treaties. Many of those treaties involved territorial settlements, reparations, and other inducements to stop fighting.

Scholars have noted the vertiginous decline in peace treaties in the era of the United Nations. Part of the reason is that modern international law penalizes compromise. For example, international criminal prosecutions have gravely complicated truth-and-reconciliation processes, whose amnesties are often not recognized outside the country where they were granted. Similarly, although Putin surely knew that he was committing a war crime by invading Ukraine, the International Criminal Court’s recent issuance of an arrest warrant for him can only make the stakes of the war even more apocalyptic for the Kremlin.

Wilsonian professions of high moral and legal principle can be an obstacle to compromise, particularly when they become inflexible policy positions. But they also represent what is best in Americans’ view of themselves and of the world—pacifism and benevolence tempered by the instinct to stick up for the underdog and stand up to the bully. Presidents like Ronald Reagan succeeded by finding the balance of idealism and realism, tapping into deep wellsprings of democratic sentiment to give compelling force to their realpolitik. The most important part of DeSantis’s comments signaled a similar approach: “Without question, peace should be the objective.”

Peace should be the overriding objective now, but it will require a willingness to compromise. As the great Cold War game theorist Thomas Schelling observed, parties to a conflict are always negotiating, even if tacitly. If we get beyond their maximalist positions to what each side really needs, a compromise may be possible.

The 1991 borders created a painful dilemma for Ukrainian nationalists. They could have political independence or they could have full territorial integrity, but not, in the real world, both. In the years since the rupture of 2014, Kyiv has tacitly chosen political independence over territory. Russia is facing the mirror image of that dilemma. Putin wants Ukraine to cede the territory Russia now occupies, and to pledge that it will stay out of NATO. Russia must know that it can’t have both of those things while NATO is backing Ukraine. By “annexing” Crimea and now Donbas, it has tacitly chosen territory over political control.

That should help us see the outlines of a durable peace through the fog and din of war. The U.S. should encourage Ukraine to sell the Russians the territory they now occupy in exchange for a large sum that includes reparations. Many wars have been honorably settled that way. A more homogeneously Ukrainian state would be more politically stable and could join the European Union and perhaps even NATO one day.

Absent a negotiated settlement, the most likely (and fraught) end to the war in Ukraine is a unilateral Russian cease-fire, backed by a threat of massive escalation (read: nukes) if the fighting continues. In the long run, a war that ends without a formal peace settlement could mean decades of sanctions, turning Russia into a pariah state, and almost certainly forcing it to accept de facto Chinese suzerainty. The nonrecognition of forcible territorial changes has become a bedrock principle of U.S. foreign policy, but it is another example of how excessively rigid legalism can sometimes aggravate rather than cool international conflicts.

If Russia declares a cease-fire, the Biden administration will face the decision toward which its policy has been driving it all along: whether to break its promises to Ukraine or dramatically escalate U.S. involvement. The first would gravely damage American prestige and embolden China, while the second would almost certainly lead to a nuclear showdown. Both horns of that dilemma carry totally unacceptable risks, which is why the United States should never have gotten involved in this war to begin with.

A little realism can make idealism go a long way.