Ron DeSantis retreats on Ukraine comments in new interview

Likely 2024 presidential candidate now says Russia was wrong to take Crimea and invade again last year

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. AFP
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Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, an expected 2024 presidential candidate, is retreating on his stance that Russia's war in Ukraine is a "territorial dispute", and has called President Vladimir Putin a "war criminal".

In excerpts of an interview with Piers Morgan set to air on Thursday evening on Fox, Mr DeSantis said his earlier comments were misrepresented.

He referred to fighting in the eastern Donbas region, and Russia's 2014 seizure of Crimea.

“I think it’s been mischaracterised," he told Morgan. “Obviously, Russia invaded. That was wrong. They invaded Crimea and took that in 2014. That was wrong.”

Ukraine’s borders are internationally recognised, including by the UN.

“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," Mr DeSantis said.

"There’s a lot of ethnic Russians there. So that’s some difficult fighting and that’s what I was referring to.

"And so it wasn’t that I thought Russia had a right to that, and so if I should have made that more clear, I could have done it."

Mr DeSantis made his initial comments last week in a written response to questions sent to declared and potential Republican presidential candidates by Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

Considered a top rival to former president Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican nomination, he said defending Ukraine was not a national security priority for the US, and he played down the Russian invasion.

​“While the US 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 interview, Mr DeSantis sought to toughen his position towards Russia. He also discussed Mr Trump and President Joe Biden.

Asked if he could beat the President in the election, he replied: "Yeah, I think so."

Associated Press contributed to this report

Updated: March 23, 2023, 8:17 PM