In a dramatic move to differentiate himself on a key foreign policy issue, former Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday made a surprise trip to Ukraine, projecting solidarity against Russia in a way, so far, unmatched by his Republican competitors.
His message in Ukraine was clear: "We are with you."
"As I made clear to President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy today, when I return home, whatever the future holds for me and my family, we're gonna stand for freedom," Pence told reporters. "And I'll do my part to make sure that America continues to stand for the courageous fighters here in Ukraine that are fighting to reclaim their freedom."
Among other stops, Pence visited the sites of atrocities in the early phase of the war, in Irpin and Bucha, before meeting with Zelenskyy inside the presidential palace in the capital of Kyiv.
His visit comes about four months after President Joe Biden walked through Kyiv with air sirens sounding overhead.
Back at home, Pence has repeatedly criticized Biden for being "slow" in providing military aid to Ukraine as well as the Republican frontrunners in the race for president for resisting support to the Eastern European democracy.
A divide on support for Ukraine emerged early in the GOP field when then-Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked candidates and hopefuls in March to respond to a questionnaire about the war. Former President Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis took similar isolationist positions, with DeSantis facing criticism for distilling the conflict down to "a territorial dispute."
"The war in Ukraine is not a territorial dispute. It's a Russian invasion," Pence told ABC News "This Week" co-anchor Jonathan Karl in March, staking out a position opposite the two front-runners. "It's just the latest instance of Russia attempting to redraw international lines by force, and the United States of America must continue at a quickened pace to provide the Ukrainian military the support that they need to repel the Russian invasion -- and the stakes are that high."
Pence has only amplified this split since making his bid official this month.
In a CNN town hall from Iowa on the day he launched his campaign, he said, "Frankly, when Vladimir Putin rolled into Ukraine, the former president called him a genius. I know the difference between a genius and a war criminal."
In an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press," he interjected the difference on his own when talking about Trump.
"My former running mate, seeing war raging in Eastern Europe, is signaling an ambiguous message, not even able to say who he would prefer to see win the war in Ukraine," Pence said. "The United States needs to stand by the courageous fighters in Ukraine, give them the resources more quickly than Joe Biden has, to take the fight to the Russians and repel this invasion."
Pence contends there's no place for Putin apologists in the Republican Party. Asked why then some in his party, particularly Republicans in the U.S. House, resist aid to Ukraine, Pence said any skepticism there and among the American people "is more a reflection of lack of confidence in Joe Biden as commander in chief."
"Joe Biden talks about glossy goals of democracy. No. Look, if Russia overwhelms Ukraine. I predict it would not be too long before the Russian army crosses the border, where our men and women in uniform would have to go and fight by crossing into a NATO ally," he told NBC.
Pitching himself as a Reagan-era Republican, Pence has pushed the Reagan Doctrine -- of fending off enemies on their soil to prevent America's direct involvement -- to explain how he would handle foreign policy. While he says he doesn't support sending a "blank check" to Ukraine, he's also warned that "withholding or reducing support will have consequence."
Among others in the 2024 field, former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson all support aiding Ukraine -- while tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy takes the opposite view, saying he doesn't consider the possibility of Russia overtaking Ukraine "a top foreign policy priority."
Pence's visit comes as Republican support for Ukraine has dwindled, according to some polls.
While solid majorities of Americans still support providing weapons to Ukraine, the share who say the U.S. is providing too much aid to Ukraine has steadily increased since the war began, driven by a shift among Republicans.
According to Pew Research Center, 44% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents currently say the U.S. is giving too much aid to Ukraine. That share has more than quadrupled, from 9%, since March 2022 just after Russia's invasion began.