This was a week in which it seemed that Vladimir Putin just couldn’t catch a break. On Monday in Kyiv, President Joe Biden delivered—as Eliot Cohen aptly puts it in The Atlantic —a “gut punch” directed at Putin’s aspirations. Biden deftly used the symbolic backdrop of Ukraine’s capitol and most populous city to taunt the Russian dictator, while pledging America’s “unwavering and unflagging support” to Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” These sentiments were reiterated on Tuesday in another inspirational speech Biden delivered in Warsaw. That same day, Putin himself was reduced to making veiled threats against his own citizens in a two-hour “state of the nation” diatribe. Putin spoke before an unenthused audience of “bureaucrats, security officials and functionaries,” all of them robotically rising to clap again and again, before settling back into their seats and resuming their glum expressions.
Meanwhile, as reported by Josh Kovensky for Talking Points Memo, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the former convict and head of Russia’s infamous mercenary Wagner Group, published a graphic photo depicting mutilated Wagner corpses strewn all over a ditch. Prigozhin complained about his lack of ammunition, accusing the Russian military leadership of “treason”—an unusual and revealing display of the infighting plaguing Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.
The takeaway from this week, as described by The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols, is that Putin is becoming more desperate.
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Putin spent some two hours unloading a barrage of lies, grievances, and bizarre historical revisions in his attempt to justify the bloodletting he began a year ago. He also said Russia would suspend participation in a crucial nuclear-arms-control treaty with the United States. What does this all mean?
It means, more than anything, that Putin is desperate. He’s losing in Ukraine, where, according to a British estimate last week, roughly 200,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded. Even Russia’s tough-guy Wagner mercenaries are getting cut to pieces: The National Security Council official John Kirby said in a briefing Friday that the Wagner Group—many of them convicted criminals—has taken 30,000 casualties, which is about half the entire group’s strength and a huge number even for a contractor force.
And so Putin must have rejoiced upon hearing his own talking points regurgitated by seemingly inevitable Republican presidential candidate Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who implied that despite these setbacks, it would only be a matter of time before U.S. policy in Ukraine would take an abrupt U-turn, allowing Putin to resume running roughshod over Ukraine, with a view towards threatening central and western Europe.
As explained by Jonathan Chait, writing for New York Magazine, “As a governor, DeSantis has had little reason to engage in foreign policy, but as a presidential candidate he will be presented with a choice between the party’s traditional hawkish-internationalist-neoconservative wing and its ascendant Trumpist America First wing.”
This week we see that the choice has been made: A DeSantis White House would pander to the Marjorie Taylor Greene wing of the Republican Party, which advocates disengaging from Ukraine, in effect allowing Russia to do its worst—not only in Ukraine, but everywhere else. In other words, Putin has a friend at the top of the Republican Party, regardless of whether Donald Trump or DeSantis is that party’s nominee.
Chait quotes DeSantis’ position, as articulated to a friendly audience this week on Fox & Friends:
–He described the Biden administration’s policy as a “blank check,” implying that his administration would restrict or end aide to Kyiv. (“Just saying it’s an open-ended blank check, that is not acceptable.”)
–He dismissed the notion that Russia poses a threat to American allies, interests, or values. (“It’s important to point out the fear of Russia going into NATO countries and all of that, and steamrolling that is not even coming close to happening. I think they’ve shown themselves to be a third-rate military power.”)
–He blamed the invasion not on Vladimir Putin but on Joe Biden. (“I don’t think any of this would have happened, but for the weakness that the president showed during his first year in office, culminating, of course, in the disastrous withdrawal in Afghanistan.”)
Dutifully parroting the “America First” playbook, DeSantis also contrasted the Biden administration’s position towards Ukraine with its alleged lack of concern over the U.S.-Mexican border, a comparison so blatantly inapt it probably originated from Steve Bannon’s podcast.
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As Amanda Carpenter, writing for The Bulwark, explains:
Ron DeSantis isn’t really this dense—Yale, Harvard, QED. He’s just acting dumb because he thinks it’s politically smart. And in doing so, he has revealed quite a lot about what he might be like as a president.
DeSantis has positioned himself on the wrong side of Ukraine because he thinks that opposing Biden, no matter what Biden does, is the only way to stay on the good side of MAGA voters. Even if that means turning a blind eye to the plight of the Ukrainians.
Of course, the problem here isn’t simply DeSantis’ obvious pandering, but the message that it sends to Putin, who is clearly looking for a lifeline out of his self-inflicted quagmire. Now Putin knows where to direct the same vast intelligence resources he employed to provide Donald Trump with a friendly assist in 2016. In fact, he is far more motivated now, since the failure to do so might well result in his own demise, and that of his regime. And while the Trump brand may crumble under the weight of pending indictments, there’s now a new appeaser out there, waiting to be courted.
Up to this point, many have speculated how a DeSantis campaign would play out on a national level. Now those doubts can be put to rest: He will be, first and foremost, Putin’s stooge.