Clip: Republicans divided over Ukraine aid as tensions rise between U.S. and Russia

Mar. 17, 2023 AT 8:48 p.m. EDT

Tensions between the U.S. and Russia are on the rise after a Russian fighter jet intentionally engaged with a U.S. drone over the Black Sea. It is the most direct confrontation between the two powers since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Back home, Republican presidential hopefuls are divided over what role the U.S. should have in protecting Ukraine.

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William Brangham: Turning overseas now, tensions between U.S. and Russia is on the rise after a Russian fighter jet intentionally engage with a U.S. drone over the Black Sea on Tuesday. It was the most direct confrontation between the two powers since Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

And it comes days after Florida's governor and likely 2024 Republican presidential contender Ron DeSantis drew sharp criticism from several of his fellow Republicans for minimizing the significance of that invasion. He told Fox News, quote, while the U.S. has many vital national interests, becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them. So, remarkable set of events we've been seeing.

Zolan, to you first, on this issue of this drone that we have seen, this is the kind of event that the White House seems that they have been trying all along to not allow happen, a direct kinetic conflict between Russia and the United States. How has the White House been responding to this?

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: You are absolutely right. How often have we heard the president emphasize to the American public, to the world, I'm not sending American troops actually into this war zone? We are supporting Ukraine with foreign aid. I'm trying to unite the west against Russia to have economic pressure, but we are trying to avoid any type, as you said, a kinetic war.

It has been an absolute focus for this administration and this kind of direct -- I mean, the public out there might be thinking, well, wait, this is a drone, I mean, is that still the same? I mean, it's not the same obviously as sending troops in. But this still is the type of escalation that they have been trying to avoid.

Also, there's a couple of other concerns now that this has happened. One, that video only shows, according to U.S. officials, just a little bit of what actually happened here. The administration's account is that there were two Russian fighter jets made 19 passovers over this drone as well. So, that just captures one. They, as you said, have said that at least the dumping of that jet fuel was likely deliberate as well.

Also what happens going forward in terms of that drone that they say may be deep in the sea. It's not clear yet whether or not Russia is actually going to recover it. They say it is unlikely but also there is concern about whether or not that could be used for propaganda purposes. U.S. officials are saying however that is incredibly unlikely at this time.

William Brangham: Kayla, just the fact that we saw the video even seems quite striking, I mean, how quickly that was declassified and put out there.

Kayla Tausche: I think the administration has realized that the strategy of radical declassification has been successful since the very start of this invasion. They had hoped that by telling the world what Russia was planning, that it would deter an invasion and even though it didn't, it showed that the U.S., at least its intelligence, was right after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan when the intelligence there was highly flawed. So, the ability to continue declassifying this, to show the world in a very public way that this is exactly what happened and let the viewers take for themselves.

But I think what is so important about the timing of this is that it comes just before President Xi is set to visit with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. And that axis has been strengthening and Vladimir Putin is emboldened by having an ally like that. And this is pure saber-rattling before that meeting where he is going to get to put all his own pictures out there with these massive superpowers in the east and show the U.S. that he has this friend on his side.

So, certainly he is operating as if he is above the law. That's how he's been operating since the beginning of this conflict. And I don't think the administration is surprised by it even though, of course, it was its goal to not have this happen in the first place.

William Brangham: Fin, I want to turn to you on this question of what DeSantis said about Ukraine. Referring to the illegal invasion of Ukraine as a, quote/unquote, territorial dispute struck -- got him a barrage of criticism. But you've been out on the campaign trail, you've been at a Trump rally recently talking with Republican voters. We all think that Ron DeSantis is going to get into this race. And so the question is, does the position that he is staking out on Ukraine, that it really is not for us, let's not waste American blood and soil over there, is that a resonant point with Republican voters?

Fin Gomez: Absolutely. And specifically with the MAGA base that both he and Donald Trump are trying to appeal to. And I think when I spoke to voters in Davenport, Iowa, to them, this was -- the position that he and Donald Trump are aligned on is one that they firmly support. When Donald Trump was speaking about this issue and saying that he was going to end this war on day one, it was the loudest applause, one of the loudest applause, reactions from the crowd to this issue. He is playing to that MAGA base.

He is playing -- even though he has not jumped into the race, as you mentioned, William, he does seem like a candidate and he does seem like someone who is preparing to jump into the presidential race and that issue is one that's leading him and connect him to that base.

William Brangham: I mean, Zolan, I should point out, there are a lot of other Republicans who jumped to this to criticize DeSantis and say, that is not what America's position ought to be. But Kevin McCarthy, before he became speaker, hinted at this as a possibility as well that there will not be an open checkbook. Where do you see this coming down? Do you think the Republican Party will embrace that idea?

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: I think that after the -- well, part of the Trump effect and one of the lasting sort of effects of the Trump administration is a sort of realization that the MAGA base, as you were saying, there is interest in moving away from the sort of interventionalist kind of approach to a more sort of isolationist, quote/unquote, America First approach.

That being said, there were Republicans on the Hill criticizing that were criticizing Ron DeSantis this week and I found that they were criticizing that specific term, territorial dispute. And something that came up in conversations I was having particularly with foreign policy experts in this area was, if you are likely to run for higher office and you are put in a position where this war is still ongoing and, yes, maybe you aren't advocating for as much aid, but you are now in a completely different position where you are probably going to be in a position where you are rallying for some, that comment lives on.

And if there are members of Congress on the Hill that don't want to send foreign aid at that point, think about how much harder it has now become. You have now belittled this war, this invasion to something like a territorial dispute. That is going to make it harder going forward, not just for some a potential candidate that wants higher office but also, look, the president right now is in a position where, of course, he has made clear that he wants to maintain support for Ukraine. That is absolutely true.

He also has the challenge of European allies dealing with an energy crisis and an American public that continues to deal with economic pressure, as we've been saying. So, comments like this out in the public add to that challenge of maintaining the support of the country for this aid as well as your allies.

Kayla Tausche: But there were also a few Republicans that I spoke with who said, I didn't see those comment, so I could not possibly respond, which is another relic from the Trump-era, the plausible deniability. So, I think we are going to be seeing a lot of that as this schism continues in the party.

William Brangham: Do you think, though, that this moves into becoming a legitimate issue in the 2024 presidential race?

Kayla Tausche: At least a legitimate talking point. But a lot of Republicans will say actions speak louder than words. There is one thing that they're saying on the campaign trail, but then Kevin McCarthy assured his allies privately that he would continue that support flowing.

Zolan Kanno-Youngs: It may help, though, with starting to create some factions on the campaign trail as well with these candidates. You already saw what Nikki Haley's campaign launch focusing more so on foreign policy than I've heard from some of the other people on the race. You heard Mike Pence immediately react to this as well, as we played. Meanwhile, you have DeSantis and Trump that are sort of playing for that same base as well. So, you are starting to see -- and, again, DeSantis has not announced an actual campaign yet but you're starting to see some factions with these potential candidates.

Fin Gomez: Absolutely. And you are seeing that space in the lane opposing that position by both Trump and DeSantis. Mike Pence, as you mentioned, he spoke in New Hampshire yesterday and he spoke specifically on that, specifically addressing that, this is not a territorial dispute. And that to me shows that there is a wide lane on that side and that could politically help him as we continue forward in the cycle.

Of course, Nikki Haley is also there. Mike Pompeo, who is considering a run as well, could also be on that side of the ball. But it is interesting how quickly Mike Pence jumped on it and how that he is utilizing it already as a potential framework for a potential campaign.

William Brangham: It is such a difficult thing to predict what especially foreign policy issues will end up in a presidential race. But we're going to have to leave it for now.

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