Pence urges Ukraine support as GOP hopefuls split on US aid

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Former Vice President Mike Pence said Friday the U.S. should step up support for Ukraine, marking the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion with calls for more and faster military aid that put him out of step with some of his likely 2024 presidential rivals.

“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," Pence told an audience at the The University of Texas at Austin. “If we surrender to the siren song of those in this country who argue that America has no interest in freedom’s cause, history teaches we may soon send our own into harm’s way to defend our freedom and the freedom of nations in our alliance.”

Pence, who is is widely expected to launch a bid for the White House in the coming months, also threw a dig at some in the GOP who have sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the war that has upended the lives of millions.

“While some in my party have taken a somewhat different view, let me be clear: There can be no room in the leadership of the Republican Party for apologists for Putin. There can only be room for champions of freedom,” Pence said.

Pence used a similar line in October after former President Donald Trump, Pence's former boss and potential primary rival, was criticized for calling Putin “savvy” and “smart” in the early stages of the invasion.

The speech highlighted the growing divide between declared and likely Republican presidential candidates on a slate of issues, from Ukraine to abortion to whether reforms to Social Security and Medicare should be on the table.

Trump, who launched his campaign in November, has repeatedly called for an end to hostilities in Ukraine and claimed that, if he were to return to the White House, he could end Europe’s biggest war since WWII "within 24 hours.”

Trump, in an interview with conservative commentator Glenn Beck Friday morning, complained about U.S. spending on military assistance and warned, “We’re going to end up in World War III."

“Now you have to get people in a room, you have to knock heads, you have to get it done," he said, suggesting both sides would have to make concessions after Russia's unprovoked invasion. “So that would mean saying things to Putin and saying things to Zelenskyy that they’re not going to want to hear and getting 'em into a room and getting it done."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, another potential contender, was viewed as a foreign policy hawk who embraced tough rhetoric against Putin while he served in Congress. But he has increasingly adopted a similar tone as he courts Trump’s populist base ahead of a likely 2024 presidential run.

“I don’t think it’s in our interest to be getting into a proxy war with China, getting involved over things like the borderlands or over Crimea,” DeSantis said on Fox News this week as he downplayed the Russian threat.

“It’s important to point out the fear of Russia going into NATO countries and all of that and steamrolling that is not even coming close to happening. I think they’ve shown themselves to be a third-rate military power,” he said. “I don’t think that they are the same threat to our country — even though they’re hostile — I don’t think they’re on the same level as a China.”

Pence reached out to the university Monday afternoon, after DeSantis’s appearance on “Fox and Friends.”

DeSantis' and Trump's positions stand in sharp contrast to Nikki Haley, who served two years as Trump’s United Nations ambassador and launched her campaign for the White House earlier this month.

Haley has called for the U.S. to be more proactive in its assistance to Ukraine, tweeting in November 2021 — ahead of Russia’s invasion — that “Our friend and ally Ukraine is crying out for help as Russia amasses nearly 100,000 troops at their border."

After the invasion, she appeared frequently on Fox News, accusing the Biden administration of failing to take the threat seriously. Since then, she has paired her criticism of Russia’s military action with arguments in favor of support for Israel.

“We’ll stand with our allies — from Israel to Ukraine — and stand up to our enemies — in Iran and Russia,” she said during her campaign launch speech in Charleston, South Carolina, last week.

During a subsequent campaign swing to New Hampshire, Haley called the invasion “a war on freedom." She said winning it didn’t mean sending U.S. troops or that “we write checks,” calling instead for more military support for Ukrainian forces.

In his Friday speech, Pence said there was “increased urgency” for nations to continue providing military equipment to Ukraine. “The fastest path to peace is to help Ukraine win the war," he said.

“Time is of the essence. We need to provide tanks and resources in months, not years to the people of Ukraine so they can defend their country,” he said.

The speech comes as Pence, who served in Congress and as Indiana governor before joining Trump's 2016 campaign, has been staking out policy positions ahead of an expected presidential run.

Looking to appeal to conservatives in early-voting states like Iowa, he has been highlighting his fierce opposition to abortion rights and launching initiatives opposed to gender-affirming policies at public schools and ESG, an investment movement that considers environmental, social and corporate governance issues when deciding where to invest pension and other public funds.

Pence also said this week that reforms to Social Security and Medicare have to be put “on the table in the long term," suggesting ideas like raising the retirement age or encouraging personal savings accounts for younger Americans to keep the programs solvent.

That stands in sharp contrast to Trump, who has warned his party against touching entitlement programs in an effort to avoid alienating voters.

“Under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security,” he said in a recent video, part of a series he has released outlining his stances on issues ranging from crime to energy.

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Colvin reporter from New York. Associated Press writer Steve Peoples in New York and Meg Kinnard in Charleston, South Carolina, contributed to this report.

Paul J. Weber And Jill Colvin, The Associated Press