Former Vice President Mike Pence told CNN on Thursday that “repelling Russian aggression” is in the United States’ “national interest,” after meeting earlier in the day with the Ukrainian president during a visit to the war-torn country.
The show of support for Ukraine comes as Republicans vying for the party’s presidential nomination have been divided over America’s role in the ongoing conflict. Pence’s visit marked the first from a Republican presidential candidate since the 2024 race got underway.
“By giving Ukraine what they need to repel the Russian invasion, we’re not only going to send a message to Russia that their efforts to redraw international lines by force will not be tolerated,” he told CNN’s Erin Burnett during an interview in Ukraine. “But other nations like China, that’s continuing to engage in menacing military actions across the Asia Pacific, will get the message that the free world will stand together, precisely as we’ve done here.”
Pence met with President Volodymyr Zelensky at the presidential palace in Kyiv, telling the Ukrainian leader that the US will continue to stand with Ukraine “until victory is achieved but then justice is also achieved.”
The former vice president also made stops at three different cities and villages – Bucha, Irpin and Moschun – outside of Kyiv that had seen heavy destruction from shelling and gruesome violence against civilians under Russian occupation last year. He toured the wreckage, met with locals and laid flowers at memorials for those killed in the war.
“The American people are praying with you, supporting you in Ukraine,” he told families that he met in Irpin.
Pence has been a strong advocate for US support for Ukraine against Russia’s invasion, but the issue has created a rift among 2024 Republican presidential candidates. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott have also urged continued US backing for Ukraine, while former President Donald Trump – Pence’s old running mate – and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the top polling candidates in the primary field, have questioned US aid.
Pence’s stance on Ukraine puts him more in line with Democratic President Joe Biden, who made a surprise visit to the nation back in February, demonstrating his commitment to supporting Ukraine.
Asked by a reporter what his message is for Americans, including those in his own party, who believe the US is providing too much aid to Ukraine, Pence said, “I understand the frustration that many Americans feel.”
“But I came here today to see firsthand the progress that our military support has helped make possible in Ukraine,” he said. “And my message to my fellow Americans as I return home will simply be that freedom is winning in Ukraine.”
In his interview with CNN, Pence acknowledged that “there’s debate, both in my party and around the country, about American involvement here, but I really believe that the majority of the American people understand that we are the leader of the free world and standing for freedom and supporting those that are fighting for their freedom is always the American cause.”
He also argued that the majority of Republicans “understand that America is the leader of the free world, we’re the arsenal of democracy.”
Pence’s visit Thursday isn’t the first time he has traveled to the country since the war started. In March 2022, long before he announced his candidacy, Pence went to the Ukrainian border and met with refugees displaced from their homes in escaping the violence.
Both trips were organized by Samaritan’s Purse, an American evangelical disaster relief charity run by pastor Franklin Graham. Pence and his wife, former second lady Karen Pence, have volunteered with the organization.
The war in Ukraine has raged for more than a year now. Kyiv’s counteroffensive is underway while Russia deals with the aftermath of a short-lived mutiny by the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary group, that had posed the greatest challenge to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grip on power in more than two decades. Russian missiles this week struck the eastern city of Kramatorsk, Ukraine, and a nearby village, killing at least 11 people and injuring dozens.
During the Thursday interview on CNN’s “OutFront,” Pence told Burnett that it’s an “open question” whether Putin has “full command” of his military following the rebellion by the Russian paramilitary group.
“I must just tell you that we don’t know what we don’t know about what’s happening in Russia. But that’s always true about Russia and about Vladimir Putin,” he said.
Pence criticized the Biden administration for the “slow” delivery of US military aid to Ukraine, including the Abrams tanks, and argued that it’s “imperative” that the US sends ammunition and trains pilots to use F-16 fighter jets. He, however, stressed that “we should never send American forces into this fight.”
Pence has warned that Russia may not stop at Ukraine and could threaten NATO allies, resulting in America having to send military troops.
“Make no mistake: This is not America’s war. But if we falter in our commitment to providing the support to the people of Ukraine to defend their freedom, our sons and daughters may soon be called upon to defend ours,” he said in a February speech at the University of Texas at Austin on the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion.
He has also called Putin a “war criminal” and said there’s “no room for Putin apologists in the Republican Party.”
This headline and story have been updated with additional reporting.