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No 'apologists for Putin': Pence draws contrast with DeSantis on support for Ukraine

The former vice president laid out his positions in a foreign policy speech on the first anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Former Vice President Mike Pence on Friday rebuked fellow Republicans who have given less-than-robust support for America's defense of Ukraine — a group that includes potential presidential campaign rivals like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“I would say anyone that thinks that Vladimir Putin will stop at Ukraine is wrong," Pence said in an exclusive interview with NBC News when asked about DeSantis' position on U.S. efforts to help repel Russia in Europe.

The interview came moments after a Pence speech at the University of Texas on the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

"While some in my party have taken a somewhat different view, there can be no room in the leadership of the Republican Party for apologists for Putin," Pence, who is considering a run for president in 2024, said without naming names in his speech. "There can only be room for champions of freedom."

DeSantis, who is widely expected to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, has taken a much different tack. Earlier this week, he criticized President Joe Biden for visiting Ukraine, questioned the value of U.S. spending for that country's defense and downplayed the threat Russia poses to the U.S.

"An open-ended blank check" is "not acceptable," DeSantis said in an interview on "Fox & Friends," adding that "Russia has been really, really wounded here and I don’t think that they are the same threat to our country, even though they’re hostile. I don’t think they’re on the same level as a China."

Pence portrayed that view as misguided in Friday's interview with NBC News.

"We need to understand the real long-term threat of renewed Russian aggression in Europe," he said. "And I hold the view that it will not stop there."

While Pence took issue with the "Biden administration" for being too slow to deliver weapons to Ukraine during his speech — and called for more sanctions on Russia of the variety announced Friday — he also echoed the message Biden delivered in a speech in Warsaw, Poland, earlier in the week.

"We must continue to stand with the people of Ukraine against the violence and aggression of the Russian military," Pence said. "The light does shine in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it."

But while Pence ripped some GOP leaders for their actions in the face of Russian aggression, he praised the administration in which he served. Pence noted that Russia did not try to seize territory during the "Trump-Pence administration."

Prior to the invasion, former President Donald Trump praised Putin's moves as "genius" and "very savvy" and he has since argued that Russia would not have crossed the Ukrainian border if he were still president. Pence on Friday did not directly address Trump's equivocation on Ukraine.