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Pence meets with Zelenskyy during Ukraine trip

Former Vice President Mike Pence participates in a CNN Republican Presidential Town Hall moderated by CNN's Dana Bash at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, on June 7.

(CNN) — Former Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday met with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy during a visit to the country, a show of support for the European nation under attack from Russia as Republicans vying for their party’s presidential nomination have been divided over America’s role in the ongoing conflict.

Pence met with Zelenskyy 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 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, arguing that it’s in America’s best interests, and he is the first Republican presidential candidate to visit the nation while the 2024 race is underway. 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 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 also 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.”

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 on 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 charityrun by pastor Franklin Graham. Pence and his wife, former second lady Karen Pence, have volunteered with the organization.

The war in Ukraine has raged on 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.

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 story has been updated with additional reporting.