Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, retired Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, an Afghanistan war whistleblower, went on TV to downplay Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. And since the war began, Davis has appeared on CNN, Fox News, Sinclair Broadcast Group, and other outlets to repeatedly blame NATO and even Ukraine for Russia’s attack, and to call on Ukraine to surrender to Russia or accede to its demands.
Politico reported in 2012 that Davis, who had just returned from a tour in Afghanistan, wrote in a Armed Forces Journal article that the conditions there “bore no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders about conditions on the ground.” After that article went viral, he received a prize for his whistleblower report. He also briefed members of Congress and spoke to reporters about his criticisms of the war.
Since then, Davis has become a senior fellow and military expert for the Defense Priorities Foundation, a libertarian nonprofit organization that discourages U.S. military intervention and has links to the conservative Charles Koch advocacy network. It also has a congressional lobbying arm and through 2019 had raised a little over $3 million. Davis has also written several opinion pieces for FoxNews.com dating back to 2018 that argue against military intervention in other countries or support the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Having more voices in the news arguing against U.S. military intervention is valuable, but much of Davis’ commentary on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has gone beyond military analysis and support for the Biden administration’s refusal to pursue no-fly zones in the war. Instead, Davis’ commentary on Ukraine ignores some of the realities of the situation to blame the United States and NATO allies for Russian aggression.
Davis repeatedly claimed ruling out Ukraine’s entry into NATO would have prevented Russia’s invasion
Davis has gone to extraordinary lengths to focus on Ukraine’s goal of joining NATO as the sole cause of the invasion. On February 16, Davis said of Ukraine on CNN that Putin “actually doesn’t want it to belong to him. He just wants to make sure it doesn't belong to NATO.” He made a similar claim on the February 27 edition of Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Full Measure:
LT. COL. DANIEL DAVIS: Putin does not want Ukraine, despite what anybody thinks. He just wants a buffer between him and NATO. See if he took Ukraine, then he would be building in a border with NATO. That's not what he wants. He wants a boundary, a buffer between the two. That's what he did in Georgia. He did not go into the rest of Georgia when he had the chance. He just went into those two provinces and then withdrew the bulk of their forces, leaving "peacekeepers," which is what he's got in the Donbas right now. So that's his M.O. is that he just wants security on his border. He does not want the land.
Some established facts and reports belie this claim. On January 22, British intelligence agencies made public plans by Russia to overthrow Ukraine’s government. Putin has also publicly stated that he views Ukraine not as an independent country, but Russian territory. (This, of course, is completely false.) From a Vox article on Putin’s February 21 speech that presaged the invasion:
Perhaps the biggest question behind the current crisis in Ukraine is this: What is Vladimir Putin thinking?
Putin’s clearest answer yet came in a speech delivered on Monday. He believes that Ukraine is an illegitimate country that exists on land that’s historically and rightfully Russian: “Ukraine actually never had stable traditions of real statehood,” as he puts it.
The overtures to the West from the current government of Ukraine are an attempt to stand up to this false regime, as is its antagonistic stance toward Moscow. This combination — an anti-Russian regime in what Putin views as rightfully Russian territory populated by rightfully Russian people — is unacceptable to him.
“Ukraine might have remained a sovereign state so long as it had a pro-Putin government,” says Seva Gunitsky, a political scientist at the University of Toronto who studies Russia. “Reuniting the lands formally would probably not have been at the forefront of the agenda if Putin felt he had enough political support from the Ukrainian regime.”
Russia’s demands prior to invading Ukraine were so extreme that some experts concluded the Kremlin knew they would be rejected. As The Guardian reported in December:
Russia has put forward a highly contentious list of security guarantees it says it wants the west to agree to in order to lower tensions in Europe and defuse the crisis over Ukraine, including many elements that have already been ruled out.
The demands include a ban on Ukraine entering Nato and a limit to the deployment of troops and weapons to Nato’s eastern flank, in effect returning Nato forces to where they were stationed in 1997, before an eastward expansion.
The eight-point draft treaty was released by Russia’s foreign ministry as its forces massed within striking distance of Ukraine’s borders. Moscow said ignoring its interests would lead to a “military response” similar to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
Those proposals are likely to be viewed extremely negatively by Nato countries, in particular Poland and the Baltic states. They have warned that Russia is attempting to re-establish a sphere of influence in the region and view the document as proof Moscow is seeking to limit their sovereignty.
A senior US official said on Friday that the Kremlin knows that some parts of its proposals were “unacceptable”.
Dmitri Trenin, the head of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote that Russia’s public release of its proposed agreements “may suggest that Moscow [rightly] considers their acceptance by west unlikely”.
“This logically means that [Russia] will have to assure its security single-handedly, most probably by mil-tech [military technical] means,” he wrote.
These extreme demands, which would leave the easternmost if NATO members defenseless against Russian attack, go far beyond what Davis has repeatedly claimed:
- On the February 24 edition of Sinclair Broadcast Group’s The National Desk, Davis said taking NATO membership “off the table” for Ukraine would have prevented Russia’s invasion, saying: “Putin wouldn't have any motivation to go in there. He wants that buffer there, and he’s either going to get into negotiations or through combat, and now he’s in the second category. We should have listened to the signals and just acknowledged reality. We are never going to invite Ukraine into NATO.”
- On Fox News @ Night that day, Davis said: “There is a chance that this could have been averted a long time ago by just acknowledging reality: that Ukraine is never coming in NATO.”
- During a February 24 appearance on right-wing Newsmax, Davis said, “The only thing that could have prevented it from happening in the first place” was “to again acknowledge reality, that Ukraine will never be invited into NATO, they’ll never qualify for it, and we should not have been making them think that they could come in one day by keeping this door open, because that is Putin's red line that he’s been talking about for 15 years.”
Davis also blamed Biden and NATO for Russia’s war and has repeatedly urged Ukraine to surrender
As Russia’s invasion continued, Davis began urging Ukraine to surrender and/or accept Russia’s demands, criticized Ukraine for arming citizens to defend their homes from the invaders, blamed the West for Russia’s aggression, and warned that Ukraine might be getting too much military aid.
- On the February 24 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Davis said Zelensky “needs to declare neutrality. He needs to say, we’re not even going to seek NATO membership. … And it could stop the war.”
- The next morning on Fox Business’ Mornings with Maria Bartiromo, Davis blamed President Joe Biden, NATO, and even Zelensky for the invasion. He first said, “Biden, as well as the NATO leadership, deserve a little bit of blame, I suppose, because they didn't take the offer, the chance we had before there was an invasion to just acknowledge reality that Ukraine is not going to come into NATO.” Later in the interview, Davis said Zelensky “subject[ed] his country to an invasion that he knows he can’t defend against.”
- During that same Fox Business appearance, Davis said Zelensky “owes it to his people to have a negotiated settlement, whatever the cost to him personally.” He also suggested Ukraine was forcing Russia to escalate its invasion while criticizing the arming of citizens: “Their forces can't stand up against Russia, which is highlighted by what you just said about the defense minister asking regular civilians to have Molotov cocktails. That's an act of desperation, and they need to stop that right now and say, look, let's just end this by negotiated settlement. Let's don't require it to even give Russia a chance to want to invade, to attack the rest of Ukraine, the rest of Kyiv, which would have astronomical casualties.”
- On the February 25 edition of CNN Tonight, Davis said, “The last thing [Zelensky] should be doing is putting his people in harm's way by telling them to go out and throw Molotov cocktails, handing them AK-47s they have no idea how to use properly. All he’s going to do is end up getting people killed.” He later suggested Ukraine surrender its capital to Russia.
- On Fox News Live the morning of February 28, Davis put the onus on Ukraine to end the war started by Russia: “I think the absolute best play for Zelensky right now is to negotiate a situation to where Ukraine becomes a neutral state. Just say that, declare it's not going to join NATO, it's going to be neutral, and that is the one thing that could probably end the war right now without Kyiv ever coming under attack.” He added, “All the Ukraines need to do is stop the war, and then this external pressure is going to keep Russia out and keep what could be negotiated for freedom and independence of Ukraine with Zelensky still in charge.”
- On the March 4 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Davis warned of a possible “nuclear Holocaust” “if we send in too much weapons,” or the volunteer foreign fighters for Ukraine kill Russian troops. He also baselessly suggested some of them are active-duty military personnel from NATO countries.
In his commentary calling on Ukraine to surrender, Davis has ignored reports of Russian assassination attempts against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and reports that Russia is planning public executions in captured cities. His commentary has also neglected to focus on the growing evidence of the Russian military targeting civilian populations in an increasingly brutal attempt to break resistance in strategic cities along the invasion route.
Russia has shown that it cannot keep its word to Ukraine; the invasion is a direct violation of security guarantees Russia gave in exchange for Ukraine giving up nuclear weapons in its territory years ago, and Russia has used artillery to attack humanitarian corridors it has agreed to earlier in the war.