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Ron DeSantis is Right About Ukraine

T-72B Attack in Ukraine. Image Credit. Twitter Screenshot.

When the Russians launched their illegal invasion of neighboring Ukraine, most Western observers (I included) feared that the attack was part of a more significant movement to reclaim many more former Soviet states than just Ukraine. Invading Ukraine with a paltry force of around 170,000 troops, the Russians attempted to strike hard and fast deep into Ukraine, straight for Kyiv, the capital. 

Vladimir Putin and his siloviki in Moscow assumed that the mere presence of Russian forces deep inside Ukraine would break Ukraine’s resistance and allow for Russian forces to topple the Western-backed government of Volodymyr Zelensky. Russian leaders assumed annexing more—if not all—of Ukraine would be as easy for them as it was to annex Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

They were wrong. 

Seven years of armaments and training from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) had fundamentally changed Ukraine’s forces from a shambolic holdover from the Cold War to a serious fighting force. The Ukrainians successfully repelled the initial Russian invasion. They preserved their state. But the Russians were not totally defeated. Putin had not committed all Russian society to his “Special Military Operation” in 2022. 

Ukraine is Putin’s Iraq

Like George W. Bush in Iraq, Putin believed this would be an easy and quick war of regime change, so he under-resourced his invasion. That, and Ukraine’s increased fighting capabilities, stopped Russia from annexing Ukraine—and likely dissuaded Moscow’s leaders from seeking greater levels of territorial aggrandizement elsewhere in the former Soviet bloc of Eastern Europe.

The Ukrainians were encouraged by their NATO partners to do something foolish, though. They wanted Ukraine’s forces to shift from defense to offense. The Russians were reorganizing after their defeat in the first phase of the Russo-Ukraine War. Many assumed the Russians could be pushed out of the country entirely—that Ukraine could regain its lost Crimean territory and the “breakaway republics” in Eastern Ukraine that were populated by mostly ethnic Russians. Westerners believed that if Ukraine could not be given the resources to not just hold onto their national independence by defending Kiev and Western Ukraine from Russia, but push Russia back entirely from Ukraine, then Moscow would move beyond Ukraine…just Adolf Hitler did in the Second World War.

This is a miscalculation. Putin was rebuffed last year. He looked terrible to his people. That would have been the time to negotiate a settlement. According to former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, he attempted to broach a ceasefire between the two sides, but NATO squelched his effort. 

With no off-ramp, the Russian strongman has gone all-in, defeating Ukraine and has rallied Russian society to that cause. For Putin, everything now rests on Ukraine. Only Ukraine. Because even if he manages to achieve victory in Ukraine (sadly, I believe he will), Russian forces will need considerable time to rearm and regroup from what is clearly a slog in Ukraine. 

A Much Smaller Russian “Civilization-State”

All that will matter to Putin, though, will be that he can claim to his people he achieved victory in Ukraine; that it was worth the costs. Moscow may convince neighboring Belarus to join some new pan-Slavic, Russian-led “civilization state” along with conquered Ukraine, but that is Putin’s best-case scenario should he achieve victory. No other former Soviet state will be interested in doing this and Putin won’t have the strategic muscle to risk an invasion of an actual NATO member.

Despite Vladimir Putin being an authoritarian dictator, he is not Adolf Hitler. Thankfully, he’s not even Stalin. Putin is acting in accordance with over one-thousand years of tradition of Russian grand strategy. It’s not acceptable behavior and is indeed disgusting, but it is entirely predictable. The Russian leader seeks to create “buffer zones” between the Russian civilizational core and its Western rivals. 

Ukraine is one such geostrategic buffer zone. Yes, there are cultural differences that have made the war truly awful. There have been egregious human rights violations by Russian forces. Had Putin easily conquered Ukraine last year, many other former Soviet states would have to be concerned about further Russian irredentism in the near-term. The initial resistance to Putin’s invasion, though, has changed Putin’s calculus. He may still desire other parts of Europe, but he cannot achieve such ambitious objectives under current conditions. 

Therefore, Putin’s primary mission today is less ideological and more geographical. 

Ukraine is a Typical European Territorial Dispute

So, when Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 GOP presidential nominee, told audiences that the Russo-Ukraine War was little more than a European “territorial dispute.” He was correct. Many internationalists on both the Left and Right decried what they viewed as historically illiterate remarks by DeSantis. 

The merry band of neoconservatives on the Right who misled the West into its own idiotic conflict in Iraq in 2003, had viewed DeSantis as a fellow traveler who would vanquish their Great Orange Boogeyman, Donald J. Trump, in the coming 2024 GOP primary are now left shocked and awed by their would-be savior, Ron DeSantis. DeSantis is not a neocon. He never has been. 

DeSantis’ remarks, though, indicate a seriousness of thought and analytical judgment that is otherwise lacking in most presidential candidates. DeSantis is correct: Putin is not Hitler, and this does not need to become World War II all over again. Putin is clearly a bad guy. As were many of his Russian predecessors—not just Stalin, but even tsars, like Ivan the Terrible. 

This is a predictable European territorial dispute. Robert Kagan correctly described the post-9/11 era as the “Return of History”. He was correct. History has returned to Europe. 

So, it’s time for Western leaders to apply the entirety of European history to the current conflict rather than just the last 80 years. European history was forged by endless territorial disputes. Russia was involved in many of them. These disputes rarely ended in either side winning decisively. European territorial disputes historically resulted in negotiated settlements or frosty armistices—and much give-and-take over the tiniest strips of territory between the warring parties. 

In the nuclear age, though, these petty conflicts could become nuclear world wars fast. In that case, nobody wins, and everything is ruined. We would all be wise to avoid such calamities. 

Welcome to the New Multipolar World Order

DeSantis’ comments recognize these realities and that’s reassuring. He is not saying that we should not have supported Ukraine. As a United States congressman, DeSantis did support Ukraine’s struggle to defend itself from blatant Russian aggression. I worked alongside him as a member of the Florida delegation in the House of Representatives. I remember his support for the besieged nation. What DeSantis is saying is that the West needs to understand the limits of its power in today’s multipolar world. When squaring off against a nuclear-armed great power, like Russia, that’s a rational take. Indeed, it’s the best policy for the United States.

Of course, European territorial disputes can (and have) started wider wars. Still, all those “thinkers” insisting that this is World War II all over again should study their histories better (and listen more closely to DeSantis). Given the presence of nuclear arms and the increasing fanaticism of both sides under the current leadership in Washington and Moscow, this territorial dispute is likely to become a great state conflict more akin to the First World War unless a new agreement can be hatched between NATO and Russia, regardless of the outcome in Ukraine.

And if there is to be a WWI-type conflict soon in Europe, just as in that war, there will be no decisive winner. All sides will have been responsible for starting such a horrific and unnecessary conflict. Whatever remains in the aftermath of the conflict, the old world order will have been destroyed, and something less palatable will arise. 

When DeSantis calls Ukraine a peripheral matter and merely a territorial dispute, he’s not wrong. If more Western leaders viewed it that way, we’d have a more rational strategy that stopped Russia from taking all Ukraine and yet did not overextend NATO. Should DeSantis win the presidential election in 2024, he will have his work cut out for him. The longer that neither side in the Ukraine War refuses to step back and negotiate in good faith, the sooner this territorial dispute will become a world war. 

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Brandon J. Weichert is a former Congressional staffer and geopolitical analyst who serves as a Senior Editor for Weichert is a contributor at The Washington Times, as well as a contributing editor at American Greatness and the Asia Times. He is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower(Republic Book Publishers), The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy (March 28), and Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life (May 16). Weichert can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.

Written By

Brandon J. Weichert is a former Congressional staffer and geopolitical analyst who recently became a writer for Weichert is a contributor at The Washington Times, as well as a contributing editor at American Greatness and the Asia Times. He is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower (Republic Book Publishers), The Shadow War: Iran’s Quest for Supremacy (March 28), and Biohacked: China’s Race to Control Life (May 16). Weichert can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.