KYIV, Ukraine — Former Vice President Mike Pence made a surprise visit to Ukraine on Thursday, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during the campaign.
Pence has been outspoken about his support for Ukraine, and the move sends a resounding message that he believes the U.S. should play a leading role in the country’s fight against Russia. It also puts Pence in a unique position within the GOP — a party once dominated by hawks who advocated against growing Russian influence but is now led by a man who has repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, and whose base is largely uninterested in supporting Ukraine.
"I believe America’s the leader of the free world," Pence told NBC News. "But coming here just as a private citizen — being able to really see firsthand the heroism of the Ukrainian soldiers holding the line in those woods, see the heroism of the people here in Irpin that held back the Russian army, to see families whose homes were literally shelled in the midst of an unconscionable and unprovoked Russian invasion — just steels my resolve to do my part, to continue to call for strong American support for our Ukrainian friends and allies."
Pence is spending the day getting a firsthand look at the atrocities Ukrainians have experienced over the last 16 months and visiting Moshchun, Bucha and Irpin — three cities the Russian forces occupied and ravaged — in addition to meeting with Zelenskyy.
One of Zelenskyy’s top advisers, Mykhailo Podolyak, said Pence “understands absolutely clearly what Russia is.”
“He deeply understands Russia and deeply understands the nature of this conflict, that it is not about territories, not about any businesses, not about anything except the main thing … those values for which the United States were created,” Podolyak said, naming “freedom, competition and democracy.”
“This is about helping a country that is willing to defend the fundamental, core values on which the United States as a whole is built,” he added.
The future of U.S. support for the Ukrainian war effort is in question, and the voters Pence is trying to woo in the Republican primary aren’t eager to aid the country. In the latest NBC News national poll, 52% of GOP primary voters said they would be less likely to back a candidate who supports sending more funding and weapons to Ukraine, while just 28% said they would be more likely.
"I’m here because it’s important that the American people understand the progress that we’ve made and how support for the Ukrainian military has been in our national interest," Pence said when asked by NBC News about the poll results. "I truly do believe that now, more than ever, we need leaders in our country who will articulate the importance of American leadership in the world."
"We’ll let the polls and the politics take care of themselves, but for me it was important to be here to better understand what the people of Ukraine have endured, the mindless violence that was perpetrated on them in an unprovoked invasion by the Russian military and the progress that they’ve made in pushing back that military," he added. "It’s steeled my resolve, and it’s made me better equipped to be able to go home as I speak to the American people about the vital importance of American support to repel Russian aggression."
Pence criticized President Joe Biden's administration for being "slow" in providing military support to Ukraine. He also said that he did not support sending U.S. troops to the country to assist in the war.
"We should never send American troops into Ukraine, and we don't need to," Pence said.
Pence’s continued support for Ukraine sets him apart from some of his Republican rivals. And when talking about his views on foreign policy Thursday, he looked back to President Ronald Reagan as his guiding star.
"Ever since the days of Ronald Reagan, the American people have always stood with those who fought back to defend their own freedom," he said. "We actually called it the Reagan doctrine — the idea that if you were willing to fight the Communists back in the day in your country, we’ll give you the means to fight them there so that we don’t ever have to fight them on our soil. It’s part and parcel of what brought down the Soviet Union and made it possible for Ukraine to live in freedom to begin with. But I do believe that the majority of Republicans and the majority of Americans still hold to that cause of freedom."
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis initially stumbled in his response to the war, getting criticism from within the party for calling it a “territorial dispute” and saying backing Ukraine isn’t a “vital” U.S. interest. He later changed course and called Putin a “war criminal.”
And the GOP front-runner in the polls, former President Donald Trump, initially praised Putin when he invaded Ukraine, saying he was “very savvy.” Trump has also claimed that he would be able to end the war in just 24 hours.
“Anyone can express their vision of how things should develop in a historical sense,” Podolyak said, “but we live in the real world.”