Americans in Russia-Ukraine prisoner swap wondered if death was coming

As they were led out of a cell deep inside Russian-occupied Ukraine, Alexander Drueke and Andy Tai Huynh pondered their uncertain fate: Are they about to be freed – or will they be killed?

A few days after his arrest in June, the Kremlin announced that man, both Former United States soldier, was suspected war criminals and refuse to exclude that they could face the death penalty. In a phone call with his aunt on Thursday, Drueke said that in that moment, it seemed “Can go either way.”

“It was one of those moments,” said aunt, Dianna Shaw, “that was a gut punch for me.”

The Americans were freed Wednesday as part of a prisoner exchange between the governments in Kyiv and Moscow, a stunning deal as it were. In addition to Drueke, 40, and Huynh, 28, the Russian government has agreed to release eight other foreign nationals who fought in the war on behalf of Ukraine, along with 215 Ukrainians. Fifty five The Russian fighters have been freed in exchange for Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Kremlin Ukrainian opposition politician whose relationship is so warm with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Putin is said to be the godfather of his children. Medvedchuk’s daughter.

Americans freed in vast Russian-Ukrainian prisoner exchange

Details of the extensive, participatory settlement from the governments of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, continued to flow out on Thursday. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters covering the UN General Assembly in New York that prisoners exchanged as a result of “diplomatic communication that I conducted” with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, calling for It was an “important step” to ending the war that began seven months ago, according to a transcript of his comments in state media. Ankara also played a key role in brokering a breakthrough deal this summer that would allow the resumption of grain exports after the Russian navy blocked Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, but so far Erdogan has been unable to guarantee it. a face-to-face meeting between Putin and Zelensky.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, where Drueke and Huynh are convalescing, is also said to have facilitated the release of foreign nationals. A senior member of the Saudi government on Thursday speak Mohammed’s efforts illustrates “his proactive role in advancing humanitarian initiatives.” The US government has expressed gratitude to the crown prince for his efforts to secure the release of the two Americans, but relations between the two countries remain strained because of Saudi Arabia’s record. on human rights and notably the suspected role of Mohammed as coordinator. plot to kill Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In Russia, some nationalists resented the agreement as a betrayal. Medvedchuk was once seen as a potential replacement for Zelensky, having helped Russian forces successfully overthrow the government in Kyiv and install a puppet regime. Some Ukrainians were released in exchange for Medvedchuk, and other Russians were members of the far-right Azov Regiment, a military force that Putin branded Nazism.

In Ukraine – where Azov forces used to be cheer for their bravery in the bloody time of Russia siege of Mariupol – agreement was held.

A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy, said, “It is said that Putin was elected at the expense of his friendship and one of his longtime confidants in Ukraine, Medvedchuk, to take the heroes of Mariupol”, calling the move more evidence of the Russian leader prioritizing himself over the interests of the Russian people. how.

“Even like this [war] It’s bad for Ukraine… it’s bad for the Russian people,” the official said. “Putin chose his illusory imperial ambitions over the needs of the people.”

Kyryl Budanov, leader The director of Ukraine’s military intelligence, said some liberated Ukrainians were subjected to “very brutal torture” while in captivity. Not sure if Drueke and Huynh would endure this treatment, although there are indications that both experience periods of physical deterioration that may take time to reverse.

Drueke’s aunt says her grandson hasn’t shared much yet detailed to his family how his captors treated him and Huynh. She speaks Drueke and Huynh have some “small, light, small health considerations” and are both “very dehydrated,” noting that the family isn’t exactly sure when Drueke and Huynh might be ready to make the flight. 14 hours home to Alabama from Saudi Arabia.

Footage of the release of the detainees Aired on the German television network, Deutsche Welle showed a thin and thin Drueke supported by what appeared to be medical staff as he walked. However, he was carrying his own bag.

Drueke, a former US soldier, and Huynh, a former Marine, disappeared near the city of Kharkiv on June 8 while fighting alongside Ukrainian forces. Drueke’s family believe they were moved several times during their captivity, and were likely held in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine.

According to Shaw, Drueke and Huynh appear to have been locked together during their captivity. For at least some of their time as prisoners, they were also held in the same cell as British national John Harding, who was also released this week as part of the exchange.

Since their release, the American veterans have shared an apartment in Saudi Arabia while they take their first steps toward recovery. Shaw says those who have been arrested are aware that a return to normalcy can be a long way off.

Shaw said: “He had no regrets with me – he seemed so excited to be back home. “He still has great admiration for the Ukrainian people.”

Kareem Fahim in Beirut; Robyn Dixon and Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia; and John Hudson of New York contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

Latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial deployment” of the military in a speech to the nation on September 21, seeing the move as an attempt to defend Russia’s sovereignty against a West seeking to using Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Our Watch Live updates here.

The struggle: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced Russia into a major retreat in the northeastern region of Kharkiv in recent days, as troops flee the cities and villages they have occupied since the early days of the conflict. war and give up large amounts of military equipment.

The annexation referendums: Organized referendums, which would be illegal under international law, will take place from September 23 to 27 in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, according to news agencies. Russian tons. Another organized referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.

Picture: Washington Post photographers were present from the very beginning of the war – here are some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways that people in America can help the people of Ukraine as what people around the world have donated.

Read our full range of The Russian-Ukrainian Crisis. Are you on Telegram? Please subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive videos.

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