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In words heard by adversary and ally alike, former President Donald Trump said at a recent rally that when "one of the presidents of a big [NATO] country stood up and said, 'Well, sir, if we don't pay and we're attacked by Russia, will you protect us?' I said, 'You didn't pay? You're delinquent? … No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want.'"

That hell would look like Mariupol, just one Ukrainian city where Russia has indeed done whatever it wanted.

"What can I tell you? That we've spent two weeks in hell?" said a sobbing Mariupol woman, sitting on a hospital floor with her lucky-to-be-alive toddler son safe in her arms. She was speaking to Mstyslav Chernov, one of four Associated Press reporters who were the last international journalists to remain. They won a 2023 Pulitzer Prize for their "courageous reporting from the besieged city of Mariupol that bore witness to the slaughter of civilians in Russia's invasion of Ukraine."

Video from their intrepid reporting depicted despicable atrocities, like maternity hospitals being bombed, the legs of a youth soccer player being blown off, mass graves dug to bury the innocent victims, and in images impossible to watch and impossible to ignore, parents kissing their dead children. The visceral visuals are "painful to watch, but it must be painful to watch," Chernov narrates in an AP/"Frontline" documentary "20 Days in Mariupol" that's nominated for an Oscar.

The film is sweeping in its geopolitical implications and intimate in its anguished moments, like when the aforementioned mother inconsolably sobs out her account of two weeks in hell. "We went to my brother's house all together so that it wouldn't be as frightening. We went down to the basement. Women with children all went down to the basement. A shell hit. We were buried in the cellar. We lost two children. They couldn't be saved. The girl was 7 years old and the boy was 5 years old ... You don't know where to run.

"Who will return our children to us?"

That's a question parents of so many more killed Ukrainian children are asking, as well as those of at least 19,000 children who have allegedly been abducted to be raised Russian, as reported in a searing story the New York Times titled "Ukraine's Stolen Children." While hardly the only example of likely war crimes, it's the one The Hague chose to charge Russian President Vladimir Putin and an associate with when they officially issued arrest warrants for them.

"The abduction of children is clearly defined as a war crime," said Ellen J. Kennedy, the executive director of the St. Paul-based, globally focused organization World Without Genocide. And yet, she said, "there are many other atrocities currently under investigation both by the International Criminal Court and by other judicial mechanisms as well; it is likely that Putin and other individuals will be charged for perpetrating a wide range of atrocities against men, women and children, against humanitarian aid agencies, against the environment in a crime known as 'ecocide.'"

(The death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Friday will bring additional international scrutiny, especially after President Joe Biden blamed the Kremlin.)

The essential truth-telling in "20 Days in Mariupol" and "Ukraine's Stolen Children" aren't the only examples of great journalism. Tragically, however, some of the reporting has come at a cost.

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich has been "wrongfully detained" for more than 10 months, according to the State Department, and Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian-American journalist working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has been held for four months. There are scores more, as detailed in a new account from Reporters Without Borders. The organization itself has filed eight war-crimes complaints simultaneously with the ICC and the Ukrainian prosecutor general after documenting "more than 50 attacks on more than 100 journalists, who have been killed, injured, kidnapped, taken hostage, tortured or caught up in bombings."

Then there's Tucker Carlson. The former Fox News host and forever right-wing provocateur was warmly welcomed to Moscow to interview Putin, who filibustered (and flustered) Carlson with his histrionic historical justification of the war. While rightly pressing Putin on Gershkovich's case, Carlson seemed unequal to the journalistic opportunity he was afforded, according to most observers.

Including Putin.

In fact, Russia's repressive ruler told state TV "I honestly thought he would be aggressive and ask so-called sharp questions. And I wasn't just ready for that, I wanted it, because it would have given me the opportunity to respond sharply in kind … But he chose a different tactic."

Putin's tactics served a three-pronged strategy to simultaneously send a message domestically, to the U.S. and to the Global South, which is influential in international organizations like the U.N., said Ivana Stradner, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Stradner, who studies Russia's security strategies and military doctrines to understand how Russia uses information operations for strategic communication, said that Carlson "was a dream come true for Vladimir Putin's interview because Putin understands very well that no way would Tucker Carlson ever ask a question that would put Putin in an uncomfortable situation."

Trump in turn put Putin in a comfortable position by boasting about belittling a leader of a NATO nation — which are encouraged, but not required, to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense. A major effort to get laggards to increase investments in defense has been bipartisan, spanning recent administrations, including Trump's. While only 11 of the 31 are at that level, the spending is going in the right direction, in no small part due to Russian revanchism against a non-NATO country, Ukraine. And Trump was wrong about "owing" — there is not one NATO budget, with some members in arrears. And it's not a presidential protection racket, but an alliance of like-minded Western democracies with a collective-defense mechanism, known as Article 5, that's been extraordinarily effective for nearly 75 years.

Despite a proud presidential legacy of resisting Russian and Soviet expansionism, most congressional Republicans were compliant, complicit even, with Trump's comments. Europeans, conversely, were uncharacteristically blunt.

"Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the U.S., and puts American and European soldiers at risk," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.

Article 5 "has been invoked only once: to help the U.S. in Afghanistan after 9/11," Radek Sikorski, Poland's foreign minister, told the New York Times. "Poland sent a brigade for a decade. We did not send a bill to Washington."

A more poignant, personal perspective came from another European: research fellow Stradner, who is originally from Serbia. "I grew up there in an authoritarian system so I cannot take democracy for granted," she said. "It's very sad for me to watch how some people here do not understand how lucky we are to have democracy here, but also why we not only have a moral but also a national security obligation to help other people to live in the free world. Because the world may look like a very different place in a few years."

It would be tragic if that world were one where Russia and other authoritarian nations were allowed, even encouraged, by the United States to do "whatever the hell they want."