Former Vice President Mike Pence paid an unannounced visit to Ukraine on Thursday, a detour from the presidential campaign trail that was meant to highlight his unwavering support for the nation as it fights against Russia and to contrast it with the views of two main rivals Republicans: Donald J. Trump and Ron DeSantis.
Both Mr. Trump, the former president, and Mr. DeSantis, the governor of Florida, have criticized US involvement in Ukraine’s defense. The United States has provided more than $40 billion in military and humanitarian aid.
During his 12-hour stay, with an NBC News crew accompanying him, Mr. Pence met with the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, and visited a mass burial site, laying flowers at a memorial, according to a consultant.
For more than 16 months, Ukraine has been fighting to repel the Russian invasion, in a war that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers.
“Look, war here in Ukraine is not our war, but freedom is our fight,” Pence said NBC news. He is the first Republican candidate to visit Ukraine during the 2024 campaign. President Biden was in Kiev in February.
In his nightly address to his nation, Mr. Zelensky thanked Mr. Pence for his support and said American support for Ukraine was vital.
Mr. Pence added to NBC News: « I think we are promoting not only the interests of liberty, but let me be clear, my other message is that we are promoting our national interest. »
The show of solidarity from Mr. Pence, who was Mr. Trump’s running mate, contrasted sharply with the highest tier of GOP presidential candidates.
During a CNN town hall in May, Trump, the Republican frontrunner, refused to say whether he wanted Ukraine to win the war.
He also would not call Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin a war criminal, saying doing so would make it more difficult to end hostilities. Mr Trump said Mr Putin had « made a big mistake » by invading Ukraine.
Mr. DeSantis, a former House member, has aligned himself more closely with Mr. Trump on US aid to Ukraine.
In a statement to Fox News in March before formally entering the race, DeSantis said protecting Ukraine’s borders is not a vital U.S. interest and that politicians should instead focus at home. He was answering a questionnaire from Tucker Carlson, the conservative commentator who was later fired from the network.
At the time, Mr. DeSantis was criticized by some hawks in the GOP for describing the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a « territorial dispute ». In an effort to clarify his remarks, he later called Putin a « war criminal » who should be « held accountable. »
Jonathan Swan, Maggie Habermann AND James C. Mckinley Jr. contributed report.