Mike Pence meets with Volodymyr Zelenskyy in surprise trip to Ukraine

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a Celebrate Life Day rally outside the Lincoln Memorial on June 24, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Former Vice President Mike Pence visited Ukraine on Thursday, meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and touring the war-torn country as it fights Russian aggression.

Pence, who this month launched his campaign for the Republican nomination for president, has been deeply critical of Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

He has called on the U.S. to deliver more military aid to the country and criticized GOP rivals who have questioned the ongoing U.S. involvement, saying there is no room in the party for "Putin apologists" and pushing back against those who want the U.S. to take on a more limited role on the world stage.

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Pence spent roughly 12 hours in the country Thursday, according to an adviser, with stops in Moshchun, Bucha and Irpin, according to NBC News, which traveled with him.

"I’m here because it’s important that the American people understand the progress that we’ve made and how support for the Ukrainian military has been in our national interest," he told the network. "I truly do believe that now, more than ever, we need leaders in our country who will articulate the importance of American leadership in the world."

In addition to his meeting with Zelenskyy, Pence received multiple briefings, including one from Ukrainian officials on the country's current security situation and one on allegations of human rights violations by Russians accused of abducting Ukrainian children in a bid to weaken Ukrainian resolve, the adviser said.

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President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyi during a joint press conference with President Duda and President Nauseda on June 28, 2023 in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Valentyna Polishchuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

Pence also participated in a commemoration ceremony to honor Ukrainians killed during the defense of Moshchun during Russia’s offensive and visited the destroyed Romanov Bridge, where he was briefed on the civilian evacuation efforts.

Pence visited St. Andrew’s Church and Pyervozvannoho All Saints in Bucha, the site of a civilian mass burial site, and laid flowers at the Wall of Remembrance of the Fallen for Ukraine at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Kyiv.

The trip was the second by Pence to the region. In March 2022, he made an unannounced visit to the Ukrainian border with Poland, where he crossed into Ukraine and helped deliver aid to the flood of refugees who escaping the war's initial invasion.

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Both trips were arranged by Samaritan’s Purse, an international Christian humanitarian aid organization.

Pence's GOP rivals have been far less eager to push for more U.S. involvement in Ukraine, reflecting broader skepticism within the party.

A February poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found only about a quarter of Americans — 26% — believe the U.S. should have a major role in the conflict, down from as high as 40% in March 2022. 

Among Republicans that number is even lower, with the number saying the U.S. should have a major role dropping to just 17%.

Both former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who are also seeking the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, have said the defense of Ukraine is not a vital U.S. national security interest. 

Trump has stressed the humanitarian cost of the war and called for its end. DeSantis once called the Russian invasion a "territorial dispute," but later walked back those comments in the face of criticism.