Top Republican senators slam DeSantis for calling Ukraine war a 'territorial dispute'

"It raises questions," about his understanding, Sen. John Cornyn said.

March 15, 2023, 3:42 PM

Several top GOP senators are pushing back on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' position that "becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia" is not a vital U.S. national interest.

DeSantis' statement terming the war a "territorial dispute" sparked backlash from members of his own party, including Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., early Trump backer Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas, told ABC News that he doesn't understand why DeSantis -- a veteran himself -- would be against shoring up support for Ukraine amid Russia's invasion.

"I was kind of surprised. I mean, Governor DeSantis is a veteran. He's a smart guy. I think he's been a very good governor. And I just I don't understand him saying that Ukraine isn't important to the United States," Cornyn, who called the issue "absolutely important," said.

"It raises questions," Cornyn said when asked whether DeSantis' remarks gave him concern about the Republican governor's understanding of the issue.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis answers questions from the media in the Florida Cabinet following his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives, March 7, 2023, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.
Phil Sears/AP, FILE

When asked whether questions about the size and scope of American aid to Ukraine could become a leading GOP narrative on the 2024 campaign trial, Tillis said he thinks "people need to open the aperture."

"Take a look at do you really want Russia to to own the breadbasket of Europe, and that's Ukraine, affecting food supplies? People are forgetting what we've had to do to get food into North Africa because of the conflict. Do you really want that under Russian control?" he said.

Rubio, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the war in Ukraine is "not a territorial dispute in the sense that any more than it would be a territorial dispute if the United States decided that it wanted to invade Canada or take over the Bahamas."

"I don't know what he's trying to do or what the goal is," Rubio continued in a conversation with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt regarding DeSantis' comments. "Obviously, he doesn't deal with foreign policy every day as governor."

Marco Rubio, speaks during a hearing in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 2023.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Rubio, the senior senator from DeSantis' state, also noted the importance of the conflict as a U.S. national security concern.

"It's not the number one national security interest the United States has, but it's an important one. And there are things we can do and should do to further that interest by helping them. It's not an unlimited interest," he added.

Graham, without mentioning DeSantis by name, seemed to criticize him as "missing a lot" regarding the international conflict.

"To those who believe that Russia's unprovoked and barbaric invasion of Ukraine is not a priority for the United States – you are missing a lot." Graham wrote in a Twitter thread posted on Tuesday.

But DeSantis' stance, especially his contention that "our citizens are also entitled to know how the billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars are being utilized in Ukraine," has several supporters within his party. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley and Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar have expressed skepticism of U.S. support for Ukraine, and they have been on the record voting against spending packages to aid Ukrainians in the conflict.

GOP Rep. Chip Roy, a member of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus who last May condemned billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine as "indefensible," took the step of endorsing DeSantis for president on Wednesday, nodding to the governor's stance on Ukraine in his statement of support.

"Perhaps most of all Governor DeSantis makes clear he would lead our nation as commander in chief with the kind of resolve and sober strength that produces peace through strength. A veteran himself, he recognizes that a military is best when it is strong, non-politcally correct and lethal– while being sparingly but decisively used and not mired in endless, protracted military engagements all around the globe," Roy wrote in a statement.

The Republican governor, widely viewed as a top contender for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, dinged the Biden administration for "virtual 'blank check' funding of this conflict for 'as long as it takes,' without any defined objectives or accountability."

"The U.S. should not provide assistance that could require the deployment of American troops or enable Ukraine to engage in offensive operations beyond its borders," DeSantis said in his response to a questionnaire from Fox News opinion host Tucker Carlson, which Carlson shared Monday.

"F-16s and long-range missiles should therefore be off the table. These moves would risk explicitly drawing the United States into the conflict and drawing us closer to a hot war between the world's two largest nuclear powers. That risk is unacceptable," he continued.

Former President Donald Trump adopted a similar stance in his response to Carlson's questionnaire.

"Is opposing Russia in Ukraine a vital American national strategic interest?" Trump asked.

The two probable GOP frontrunners' stance on Ukraine is directly at odds with other Republican candidates and potential 2024 hopefuls, including former Vice President Mike Pence and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who has declared her candidacy. Both have publicly said that supporting Ukraine is of vital interest to the U.S.

ABC News' Trish Turner, Brittany Shepherd and Tal Axelrod contributed to this report.