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.

The visit comes at a pivotal moment in the war, just after the rebellion by the Wagner mercenary group and the deadly Russian missile attack on a pizzeria in Kramatorsk, Ukraine.

Pence has been outspoken about his support for Ukraine, and the move sends a strong 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 Republican Party, 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 not interested in supporting Ukraine.

«I think the United States is the leader of the free world,» Pence told NBC News. «But to come here alone as a private citizen, to be able to see firsthand the heroism of the Ukrainian soldiers holding the line in those woods, to see the heroism of the people here in Irpin who stopped the Russian army, to see families whose homes were literally bombed in the midst of a rampant 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 will spend the day seeing firsthand the atrocities Ukrainians have experienced over the past 16 months, visiting Moshchun, Bucha and Irpin, three cities that Russian forces occupied and devastated, as well as meeting with Zelenskyy.

One of Zelenskyy’s top advisers, Mykhailo Podolyak, said Pence «absolutely clearly understands what Russia is.»

Pence spoke to people in Irpin on a surprise visit to Ukraine on Thursday.
Pence spoke to people in Irpin on a surprise visit to Ukraine on Thursday.David Gladstone/NBC News

“He deeply understands Russia and he deeply understands the nature of this conflict, that it is not about territories, it is not about business, it is not about anything except the main thing…those values ​​for which the United States was created,” Podolyak said, naming “freedom.” , competition and democracy”.

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

The future of US support for the Ukraine war effort is in doubt, and the voters Pence is trying to attract in the Republican primary are not eager to help the country. In the latest NBC News national poll, 52% of Republican primary voters said they would be less likely to back a candidate who supports sending more funds and weapons to Ukraine, while only 28% said they would be more likely.

“I am here because it is important that the American people understand the progress we have made and how supporting the Ukrainian military has been in our national interest,” Pence said when asked by NBC News about the poll results. «I truly believe that now, more than ever, we need leaders in our country who articulate the importance of American leadership in the world.»

«We will let the ballot box and politics take care of themselves, but it was important for me to be here to better understand what the people of Ukraine have endured, the senseless violence that was perpetrated against them in an unprovoked invasion by the Russians». and the progress they’ve made in pushing that army back,» he added. «It strengthened my resolve and better prepared me to be able to return home as I speak to the American people about the vital importance of American support in repelling Russian aggression.»

Pence’s stance also sets him apart from some of his Republican rivals. And when he spoke about his views on foreign policy on Thursday, he remembered former President Ronald Reagan as his guiding star.

«Since the days of Ronald Reagan, the American people have always stood with those who fought to defend their own freedom,» he said. «In fact, we call it the Reagan Doctrine: the idea that if you were willing to fight the communists in your country, we’ll give you the means to fight there so we never have to fight them.» on our soil. It is an integral part 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 most Republicans and most Americans still cling to that cause of freedom. .»

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis initially stumbled in his response to the war and drew criticism within the party for calling it a «territorial dispute» and saying backing Ukraine is not in the «vital» US interest. He later reversed course and called Putin a «war criminal.»

And the GOP frontrunner in the polls, former President Donald Trump, initially praised Putin when he invaded Ukraine, saying he was “very smart.” Trump has also claimed that he could end the war in only 24 hours.

«Anyone can express their vision of how things should play out in a historical sense,» Podolyak said, «but we live in the real world.»