Former Vice President Mike Pence said during a speech to GOP donors at a Republican National Committee retreat Friday evening in New Orleans that there is "no room" in the GOP for apologists for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
According to excerpts of the speech, Pence explained that "There is no room in this party for apologists for Putin. There is only room for champions of freedom."
"To those who argue that NATO expansion is somehow responsible for the invasion of Ukraine, ask yourself where would our friends in Eastern Europe be today if they were not in NATO," his speech continues. "Where would Russian tanks be today if NATO had not expanded the borders of freedom?"
Pence also said that Republicans "must send a deafening message" that "Putin must stop or Putin must pay."
And while he does not mention him by name, Pence's speech comes after former President Donald Trump said during a Feb. 22 appearance on "The Clay Travis and Buck Sexton Show" that Putin is a "genius" and "very savvy" for his handling of Ukraine.
Speaking the next day at a fundraiser in Mar-a-Lago, Trump said, "They say, 'Trump said Putin's smart.' I mean, he's taking over a country for two dollars worth of sanctions. I'd say that's pretty smart."
But earlier this week, the former president told Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo that Russia's invasion of Ukraine was a "holocaust" and that the Russians "have to stop killing these people."
Trump said during an interview Friday that while he and Putin were friends, the Russian president "sort of" believed him when he once warned that the U.S. would "hit" Moscow if provoked.
Other conservatives to face backlash for remarks seen by many as sympathetic to Putin include former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, with Pompeo calling Putin a "talented statesman" with "lots of gifts" in January and Carlson just last month questioning why Americans should hate the Russian president.
Pence also rebuked President Joe Biden for his record on foreign policy, pointing out that Russia had not invaded Ukraine until the current U.S. president took office.
"From day one President Biden has shown weakness on the world stage and the world is a more dangerous place as a result," Pence said. "It's no coincidence that Russia waited until 2022 to invade Ukraine. Weakness arouses evil and the magnitude of evil sweeping across Ukraine speaks volumes about the president. I say this not as a partisan but as an American.
The former vice president called on Biden to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline and reopen oil and gas exploration in the U.S. to "put America back on the path of energy independence that we achieved under the Trump-Pence administration."