Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, made an unannounced visit to Ukraine on Friday to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky, whom he praised for demonstrating “the resolve it takes to survive a war and ultimately win it.”
Mr. Christie is the second 2024 G.O.P. hopeful to visit Mr. Zelensky in Kyiv, signaling his support for Ukraine in a war that has divided the Republican candidates and Republican voters. Former Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Ukraine in June.
Escorted by a Ukrainian security detail, Mr. Christie visited sites near Kyiv that were devastated during Russia’s drive toward the Ukrainian capital in the first months of the invasion, including Bucha, a Kyiv suburb where Russian soldiers massacred more than 400 people last April.
“There are hundreds of millions of people in our country who support you,” Mr. Christie told local officials in Moshchun, a village northwest of Kyiv, during a visit to a memorial overlooking a trench used by Ukrainian soldiers during a battle in March of last year.
The United States has provided Ukraine with billions of dollars in military and security assistance since Russia’s invasion more than a year ago, with President Biden often framing the extraordinary level of support as part of an existential fight for democracy against authoritarian aggression as well as being vital to national security interests.
A majority of Americans continue to approve of U.S. aid to Ukraine in the conflict, but that support has softened over time, owing mostly to increasing Republican opposition. The percentage of Republicans saying the United States is providing “too much” support to Ukraine has grown to 44 percent from 9 percent since the Russian invasion in February 2022, according to polling by the Pew Research Center.
That shift has been led by former President Donald Trump, whose first impeachment resulted from his 2019 phone call to Mr. Zelensky pressuring him to investigate Mr. Trump’s political rivals after freezing hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Ukraine. Mr. Trump, who maintained that he did not pressure Mr. Zelensky, has said defending Ukraine is not a vital national interest for the United States.
In a CNN town hall in May, he refused to say whether he would continue President Biden’s policy of supplying weapons and ammunition to Ukraine if he returned to the White House, or whether he supported Mr. Zelensky or Russian President Vladimir Putin in the conflict.
“I want everybody to stop dying,” Mr. Trump said.
Ukraine policy is an area in which Mr. Christie, a 2016 Trump rival-turned Trump adviser-turned Trump critic, has sought to draw a sharp contrast between himself and the former president, calling Mr. Trump a “puppet of Putin” and mocking his recent claim that he could negotiate “in one day” a truce between Mr. Zelensky and the Russian leader.
“Move over Churchill, Trump is here to save the day,” Mr. Christie tweeted last month.
“I think he really likes strongmen,” Mr. Christie said of Mr. Trump in an interview late Thursday aboard a train to Kyiv. “I think those are his role models in terms of the way he would like to control power if left to his own devices.”
Mr. Christie also criticized the Biden administration for not doing more to support the Ukrainian war effort, in particular its delays in supplying Mr. Zelensky’s government with F-16 fighter jets, which Mr. Biden had resisted doing for a year before approving the move in May. “I would have been sending them months ago,” Mr. Christie said. He also favors NATO membership for Ukraine.
A New York Times/Siena poll this week showed Mr. Christie trailing far behind Mr. Trump, who remains the overwhelming favorite in the race, with the support of 54 percent of likely Republican primary voters.
“I wish you political luck,” Anatolii Fedoruk, the mayor of Bucha, told Mr. Christie during his visit to the city.
“We all hope for that, right?” Mr. Christie replied, clapping him on the back.