Putin’s Boy from Tallahassee

Kremlin state media has been elated at Ron DeSantis’s statement on Ukraine.
Kremlin state media has been elated at Ron DeSantis’s statement on Ukraine. Photo: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images
Julia Ioffe
March 14, 2023

On Monday night, after a year of playing coy, Ron DeSantis, Republican presidential nominee in all but name, finally made clear his position on the war in Ukraine, in response to Tucker Carlson’s unofficial 2024 questionnaire. The Fox News host, who had solicited answers from anyone considering tossing their hat in the ring, was clearly impressed. In addition to giving DeSantis’s statement a glowing summary on the air, Carlson posted the entire statement in a tweet. Putting aside the fact that the tweet was 2,485 characters long—that is, 2,205 over the limit for the rest of us mortals—the message itself was quite clear: helping Ukraine fend off Russia’s invasion was not one of the U.S.’s “vital national interests.” Securing the border, dealing with the fentanyl epidemic? Yes. Vital national interest. Helping Ukraine? Not so much. 

Notably, however, DeSantis said that “checking the economic, cultural, and military power of the Chinese Communist Party” was part of the U.S.’s vital national interest. This Russia-dove-China-hawk position is something that I’ve noticed a lot in the last few months as the war in Ukraine drags on and as Republicans, particularly those on the G.O.P.’s populist flank, grow weary about sending so much money to Ukraine. Even as the right rails against sending a “blank check” to Kyiv—a catchphrase that DeSantis echoed in his statement—this subset of the party seems to be quite comfortable with the idea of a looming confrontation with China. “They’re honestly itching to go to war with China,” one insider familiar with the workings of the Hill told me. 

And in this view, where everything is zero-sum and where you can’t deal with immigration while also supporting Ukraine, it has become politically unfeasible to fight a proxy war with Russia over Ukraine while fighting another one with China over Taiwan. To wit, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley sent a scathing letter to Secretary of State Tony Blinken in December saying, “You are prioritizing arms to Ukraine over our vital security interests in Asia… Regardless of the weapons’ source, if both Taiwan and Ukraine need them, they should go to Taiwan first.” 

Of course, some military experts might deemphasize the binary nature of this debate—suggesting, perhaps, that matters of geography dictate that the weapons required in the case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a mountainous island, will be quite different from what a largely flat Ukraine has needed. “They see everything as a finite amount of equipment and funding,” said the insider. “That’s not how this works at all. It betrays a misunderstanding of how this actually works.” Moreover, this person pointed out, there are other ways of countering Chinese influence instead of going to war with a billion-person-strong country with whom we are so financially intertwined. “Instead of advocating for more weapons, they could propose building more American embassies in Latin America and Africa,” they continued. “China has a larger diplomatic presence in the world than we do and that has not historically been the case.” 

But of course, Republicans would much rather spend money on the military than on deep-state bureaucrats in the State Department. And it is Hawley’s view, not Mitch McConnell’s pro-Ukraine stance, that is gaining more and more adherents on the Hill. 

“Less Than Human”

Why are right-wing Republicans so hawkish on China and soft on Russia? One reason, of course, is that China is communist, which is anathema to Republicans—and is also synonymous with Democrats. For many on the right, China is also synonymous with the export of American manufacturing jobs abroad and the hollowing out of the American heartland.

That is a complaint I heard often from Republicans. One, a high-ranking G.O.P. Hill aide, cited “how China fucked us over on the industrial front” (with industrial espionage, subsidizing their industry, and using slave labor) when I asked why Republicans were on such a warpath with the country. “We are talking about a sustained economic onslaught against America’s worker base,” this person elaborated. “Unhappiness about unfair trade practices by China is a deeply held perspective that many formerly disaffected Democrats shared. People have been feeling that since we opened up trade with China in the Nixon administration.” Donald Trump, of course, sensed this and ably weaponized it by turning a formerly Democratic constituency into a bright red one. 

It’s not that people love Russia or Vladimir Putin all that much, this aide explained. It’s that “Russia is not as much of a player as we’d like to think, definitely not as much as China.” And as for the Republican base, which, according to polls, is steadily drifting away from Ukraine, “it’s harder to explain to them that what Russia is doing to grain exports has an effect on world food prices. In the grand scheme of things, they still haven’t seen Russia be as bad an economic actor as China. Long-held resentments against China far outweigh the long-held resentments against Russia.”

The economic argument isn’t the only one, of course. Some of the antipathy toward China has its origins, even if they are unspoken, in the idea that Chinese people are inherently alien, both in appearance and culture, much more so than white, Christian Russians. “It’s hard to overlook the racial contours of this,” noted my friend Robert Draper, of the New York Times Magazine, who has been writing about Republicans for decades. “Putin being a European strongman has always attracted admirers on the far right. There was never that kind of admiration for Xi.” 

Some of this has its roots in the John Birch Society, which was the QAnon of the Cold War, and centered on the cult of the O.S.S. officer and airman John Birch, who was brutally killed—you guessed it—by communists while on a mission in China. “Whether they’re aware of it or not, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz are picking up on it,” Draper said. “Birch people hated Soviet Russia but reserved a particular hatred for China. They saw the Chinese as scheming, diabolical, cruel, less than human.”

“The Whole Uber-Masculinity Thing”

Then, of course, there’s the Republican far right’s scarcely disguised affinity for Russia and for Putin. Some of it is defensive. After years of Russia-gate and “Moscow Mitch,” some Republicans have become knee-jerk defenders of the place that Democrats tried to tar them with. “They’re so sick of hearing that Donald Trump was in bed with the Russians, so when you bring it up they say, oh, that fucking narrative again,” the G.O.P. Hill aide said. 

Others, myself included, see something darker at work. The far right of the G.O.P. doesn’t want to send a “blank check” to Ukraine (though the U.S. is hardly doing so) not simply because they are fiscal conservatives who want vengeance for the eviscerated American heartland, but because they feel a real appreciation for Putin and the regime he’s created. “Why are Republicans suddenly soft on Russia? Because they see us as defending ideological bullshit like democracy,” spat Ambassador Daniel Fried, a retired career foreign service officer known as a George W. Bush guy in D.C. foreign policy circles. “In the 1930s and ’40s, a lot of the isolationists had sympathy for Hitler. Today, a lot of them have sympathy for Putin, who is all-in on the right-wing, anti-woke, anti-cosmopolitan culture wars. The whole uber-masculine thing.”

It’s no coincidence that DeSantis finally clarified his position on Ukraine on Tucker Carlson’s show. Carlson, let’s recall, made his stance known two days before the war by asking his viewers to ask themselves “Why do I hate Vladimir Putin so much?” before rattling off a mish-mash of anti-China and anti-woke talking points. (“Has Putin ever called me a racist? Has he threatened to get me fired for disagreeing with him?… Did he manufacture a worldwide pandemic that wrecked my business and kept me indoors for two years? Is he teaching my children to embrace racial discrimination? Is he manufacturing fentanyl? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity?” You get the drift.) In the run-up to the war, Carlson, who has the most-watched show on cable television, asked, “Why shouldn’t I root for Russia? Which I am.”

None of this is lost on the Kremlin, which has weighed in heavily on America’s woke wars. Putin himself keeps dragging in American issues, like “cancel culture,” into his justifications for invading Ukraine. Putin invoked gender issues during his signing of the decrees illegally annexing four Ukrainian territories. “Do we really want here in this country, in Russia, [for children] to have a parent number one and a parent number two instead of a mother and a father?” he said

In other words, in Putin’s telling, Russia was saving Ukraine from the West’s queer, non-traditional values that, he added, would always be alien to Russia. Even in his speech announcing the invasion on February 24, 2022, Putin said he was attempting to put an end to the West’s endeavors “to destroy our traditional values, to force on us [the West’s] pseudo-values, that would have just eaten away at our people from the inside” and would have led to “degradation and degeneration, because they are against human nature itself.”

“Obviously, they see Republicans coming back to power as the best chance to finish off Ukraine so they’re trying to listen to what their talking points are,” said Julia Davis, who founded Russian Media Monitor. “So they’re seeing what Donald Trump, Jr.’s points are about Zelensky trying to destroy the Orthodox Church and Christianity and parroting them. And because MAGA Republicans’ knowledge of that region of the world is so shallow, they think it’s quite easy to feed them convenient talking points to get them to repeat it and retweet it.” 

Davis noted that Kremlin state media has been elated at DeSantis’s statement on Ukraine. “It sent them into ecstasy,” Davis told me. “They call him No. 2, because Trump is still No. 1. They’re saying that the likes of McConnell, their days are numbered and MAGA Republicans are the future. They’re very excited and it’s giving them something to hope for, that Ukraine will just be handed over to them with no more help from the U.S.”

Some of it, however, is just good, old-fashioned politics. Before he was against it, DeSantis was very much for sending aid to Ukraine. In 2014 and 2015, when Putin first invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, then-Congressman DeSantis had a lot to say about a different Democratic president, Barack Obama. That time, though, he wasn’t mad that Obama was sending blank checks to some faraway country, getting the U.S. bogged down in a war of escalation that was not a vital national security interest. No, he was mad at just the opposite, that Obama wasn’t doing enough. “We in the Congress have been urging the president, I’ve been, to provide arms to Ukraine,” DeSantis said at the time. “They want to fight their good fight. They’re not asking us to fight it for them. And the president has steadfastly refused. And I think that that’s a mistake.” 

He went on: “I think that when someone like Putin sees Obama being indecisive, I think that whets his appetite to create more trouble in the area. And I think if we were to arm the Ukrainians, I think that would send a strong signal to him that he shouldn’t be going any further.”

What changed? The policy of a Democratic president, though what stays constant is that whatever a president of the opposite party is doing is never right. And in Washington, that doesn’t count as flip-flopping. Not that it would matter if it did.