Mike Pence meets Volodymyr Zelenskyy on surprise trip to Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine — Former Vice President Mike Pence made a surprise visit to Ukraine on Thursday, becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during the campaign.

This visit comes at a crucial time in the war, just after the rebellion of the Wagner mercenary group and the deadly Russian missile attack on a pizzeria in Kramatorsk, Ukraine.

Pence has openly expressed his support for Ukraine, and the move sends a resounding message that he believes the United States 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 opposed Russia’s growing influence, but is now led by a man who has repeatedly praised of Russian President Vladimir Putin and whose base is largely uninterested in supporting Ukraine.

Mike Pence meets Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Ukraine.  (NBC News)

Mike Pence meets Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Ukraine. (NBC News)

“I believe America is the leader of the free world,” Pence told NBC News. “But to come here as a private citizen – to really be able to see firsthand the heroism of the Ukrainian soldiers holding the line in these woods, to see the heroism of the people here in Irpin who held back the Russian army, to see families whose houses were literally bombed in the midst of an unconscionable and unprovoked Russian invasion – only strengthens my resolve to do my part, to continue to call for strong American support for our Ukrainian friends and allies.”

Pence spends the day learning about the atrocities Ukrainians have suffered over the past 16 months and visiting Moshchun, Bucha and Irpin – three towns occupied and ravaged by Russian forces – in addition to meeting Zelenskyy.

One of Zelenskyy’s top advisers, Mykhailo Podolyak, said Pence “completely understands what Russia is.”

Pence puts his hands on a woman's shoulder as he talks to her in Irpin, Ukraine (David Gladstone/NBC News)

Pence puts his hands on a woman’s shoulder as he talks to her in Irpin, Ukraine (David Gladstone/NBC News)

“He deeply understands Russia and deeply understands the nature of this conflict, that it is not about territories, or companies, or anything but the essentials … those values ​​for which the United States has been created,” Podolyak said, naming “freedom, competition and democracy.

“This is about helping a country that is prepared to uphold the core values ​​upon which the United States as a whole is built,” he added.

The future of US support for Ukraine’s war effort is in question, and the voters Pence is trying to woo in the Republican primary aren’t eager to help the country. In NBC News’ latest national poll, 52% of GOP primary voters said they would be less likely to support a candidate who supports sending more funds and weapons to Ukraine, while just 28 % said they would be more likely.

“I’m here because it’s important for the American people to understand the progress we’ve made and how supporting Ukraine’s military has been in our national interest,” Pence said when asked by NBC News. survey results. “I truly believe that now, more than ever, we need leaders in our country who will express the importance of American leadership in the world.”

“We’ll let the polls and politics take care of themselves, but for me it was important to be here to better understand what the Ukrainian people endured, the senseless violence that was perpetrated against them during ‘an unprovoked invasion by the Russians’ military and the progress they’ve made in repelling that army,” he added. “It strengthened my resolve and it better equipped me to be able to go home then that I speak to the American people about the vital importance of American support in repelling Russian aggression.”

Mike Pence in Irpin, Ukraine (David Gladstone/NBC News)

Mike Pence in Irpin, Ukraine (David Gladstone/NBC News)

Pence criticized President Joe Biden’s administration for being “slow” in providing military support to Ukraine. He also said he was not in favor of sending American troops into the country to help in the war.

“We should never send American troops to Ukraine, and we don’t need them,” Pence said.

Pence’s continued support for Ukraine sets him apart from some of his Republican rivals. And when he spoke about his views on foreign policy on Thursday, he considered former President Ronald Reagan his guiding star.

“Since the days of Ronald Reagan, the American people have always supported those who fought to defend their own freedom,” he said. “We actually called it the Reagan Doctrine – the idea that if you were prepared to fight the Communists at the time in your country, we would give you the means to fight them there so that we never had to. fight them on our soil. This is part and parcel of what toppled the Soviet Union and allowed Ukraine to live in freedom. But I believe that the majority of Republicans and the majority of Americans still care about this cause. of freedom.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis initially stumbled in his response to the war, receiving criticism from within the party for calling it a ‘territorial dispute’ and saying supporting Ukraine is not a “vital” American interest. He later changed course and called Putin a “war criminal”.

And GOP front-runner in the polls, former President Donald Trump, first praised Putin when he invaded Ukraine, saying he was “very shrewd.” Trump also claimed he would be able to end the war in just 24 hours.

“Anyone can express their view of how things should develop in a historical sense,” Podolyak said, “but we live in the real world.”

This article originally appeared on NBCNews.com

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