Former Vice President Mike Pence’s surprise visit to Ukraine on Thursday highlighted a sharp division within the Republican Party over American involvement in defending the country against Russia.

And he drew a stark contrast between Pence and his former boss, former President Donald Trump, who led his party in a more isolationist direction.

The first candidate in the packed 2024 Republican presidential field to visit Ukraine, Pence directly countered the rising wing of modern «America First» conservatism and sought to position himself as the party’s leading defender of the aggressive foreign policy that defined the party for decades. .

“I truly believe that now, more than ever, we need leaders in our country to articulate the importance of American leadership in the world,” Pence told NBC News in Kiev. «Since the days of Ronald Reagan, the American people have always stood with those who fought to defend their own freedom.»

The visit came as many conservatives called for cutting ties with Ukraine, which received hundreds of billions of dollars in aid and weapons from the Biden administration. They argue that the money would be better spent in the US, that the real fight for freedom is against liberalism at home, and that the fight with Russia is a diversion from the more important one with China.

Trump, to whom Pence remained loyal until they fell out during the January 6 insurrection, praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, said he would end the war in Ukraine as quickly as possible, which would almost certainly require Ukraine to make big concessions. , and refused to say whether he wanted Ukraine or Russia to win, even when repeatedly pressed on the question during a CNN open forum last month.

“Shockingly, almost the entire Republican field supports Biden’s strategy of blind support for Ukraine,” Vivek Ramaswamy, the tech entrepreneur who has become an unexpectedly strong presidential candidate, said in a memo posted on Twitter this month: «I disagree and predict this will become *the* key hallmark issue in our primaries.»

But Pence said his visit to Ukraine and his meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy only «strengthened my resolve» and «better equipped me to be able to come home as I speak to the American people about the vital importance of American support in repelling Russian aggression.» . ”

The former vice president has emphasized Ukraine in the stump more than any other Republican candidate and plans to connect Ukraine’s ongoing fight against Russia to the American war for independence when he celebrates July 4 in Iowa next week, according to his campaign.

“There can be no place in the leadership of the Republican Party for Putin apologists,” Pence said in a speech marking the anniversary of the Russian invasion in February.

Liberal critics say Pence helped Trump put his stamp on the GOP, so his attempt to undo it is now too little too late.

But Peter Feaver, a former senior National Security Council official in the George W. Bush White House and a leading conservative foreign policy expert, called a visit to a war zone by a major presidential candidate an «exhilarating event » that could help Pence «take a leap». out of the group, at least in Ukraine,” for party people like him who want the GOP to retain its traditional foreign policy values.

But he acknowledged that «the liveliest part of the base» appears to be with Trump.

The majority of Republican primary voters, 52%, said they would be less likely to back a candidate who supports sending more funds and weapons to Ukraine, according to the latest NBC News pollwhile 28% said they would be more likely to support that candidate.

Support for Ukraine initially enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the US. But after a year and a half of war, Republicans are 30 percentage points more likely than Democrats to say Washington is giving too much support to Ukraine. Kiev. according to Pew Research.

While Pence’s visit drew positive reviews from mainstream conservative media such as the National Reviewothers criticized him for making the trip, he called it a «fraudand a rhino — “Republican in name only” — and mocked Pence for being in kyiv at the same time as climate activist Greta Thunberg, one of the right-wing’s favorite villains.

But for the most part, the conservative media ignored the visit, reflecting on Pence’s low ranking in the polls and underscoring how difficult it will be for him to get the party back to its foreign policy roots.

“I didn’t know there were voters in the Republican primary in kyiv,” said conservative commentator and former judge Andrew Napolitano on Real America’s Voice. “You should be spending your time in New Hampshire, where Donald Trump is winning it 51% to 5%.”

Still, Feaver, now a professor at Duke University, said Pence’s emphasis on Ukraine may force the other candidates to broach an issue they would otherwise prefer to avoid, as it divides their base.

“It is not going to change Trump. Trump is immovable on that issue. But he puts a lot of pressure on DeSantis to define himself better,” Feaver said. «DeSantis launched into the Ukraine with that very poorly framed response to Tucker Carlson, then backtracked and has sent mixed messages ever since.»

DeSantis faced criticism in March when he told the former Fox News host that the «territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia» was not a key American interest. He quickly backtracked, calling Putin a «war criminal» and saying Ukraine has a right to Russian-occupied territory.

Meanwhile, the rest of the field of candidates, including former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, say they support continued aid to Ukraine, although none have emphasized the issue as much as Pennies.

Foreign policy is rarely a central issue in presidential elections, let alone partisan primaries, but depending on which faction prevails and who gets to the White House will set the tone for the Republican Party and potentially for American politics. .

“I don’t think it will be decisive in the primaries. But I think he is determinative in the government,” Feaver said. Whoever is president will have to carry the baggage that he is accumulating in the primaries ”.