Florida's Gov. Ron DeSantis is bluntly declaring Russian President Vladimir Putin a "war criminal," demanding he be "held accountable" for the brutal and lethal invasion of Ukraine.
In labeling Putin, the governor is taking a tougher tone than he appeared to take last week, when he used the term "territorial dispute" in discussing Ukraine.
Offering more clarity on his comments, DeSantis is now unequivocally saying Russia was wrong to invade Ukraine, equally wrong to invade Crimea in 2014, and destined to lose the war.
In excerpts of an interview with Piers Morgan set to air Thursday on Fox Nation, DeSantis said his earlier comments referenced ongoing fighting in the eastern Donbas region, as well as Russia's 2014 seizure of Crimea. Ukraine's borders are internationally recognized, including by the United Nations.
"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," DeSantis said, according to excerpts. "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."
DeSantis made his initial comments last week in a written response to questions sent to declared and potential GOP presidential candidates by Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The Florida governor, seen as a top rival to former President Donald Trump for the 2024 GOP nomination, said that defending Ukraine wasn't a national security priority for the U.S.
In the interview with Morgan, DeSantis sought to toughen his position toward Russia, calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a "war criminal" and arguing that his detractors had incorrectly characterized his "territorial dispute" remarks.
"I think it's been mischaracterized," he told Morgan, according to excerpts. "Obviously, Russia invaded — that was wrong. They invaded Crimea and took that in 2014 — that was wrong."
Asked by The Atlantic about DeSantis' initial comments, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy suggested that failure to act on Russia's aggression in his country could ultimately draw the U.S. into a conflict if incursions are also made into NATO member countries.
"When they will occupy NATO countries, and also be on the borders of Poland and maybe fight with Poland, the question is: Will you send all your soldiers with weapons, all your pilots, all your ships? Will you send tanks and armored vehicles with your young people? Will you do it?" Zelenskyy said. "Because if you will not do it, you will have no NATO."
Newsmax contributed to this report.
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