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

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

As they were led from their prison cell deep into Russian-occupied Ukraine, Alexander Drueke and Andy Tai Huynh pondered their uncertain fate: were they about to be released – or would they be killed?

Days after their capture in June, the Kremlin declared that the men, both US military veterans, were suspected war criminals and refused to exclude that they could face the death penalty. In a phone conversation with his aunt on Thursday, Drueke said it seemed like things at the time “can go either way.”

“That was one of those moments,” said the aunt, Dianna Shaw, “where it was a punch to me.”

The Americans were released on Wednesday as part of a prisoner exchange between the governments in Kiev and Moscow, an agreement as stunning as it was vast. In addition to Drueke, 40, and Huynh, 28, the Russian government agreed to release eight other foreigners who had taken part in the war on behalf of Ukraine, plus 215 Ukrainians. Fifty-five In return, Russian fighters were released along with Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Kremlin Ukrainian opposition politician who has such warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Putin is considered the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter.

Americans released in sprawling Russia-Ukraine prisoner exchange

Details of the sweeping deal, brokered with commitment from the governments of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, continued to trickle out Thursday. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters about the UN General Assembly: in New York that the prisoner swap was the result of “diplomatic relations I conducted” with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who shouted it is an “important step” toward ending the war that began seven months ago, according to a transcript of his comments circulated by state media. Ankara too played a key role this summer in securing a breakthrough deal that would allow the resumption of grain exports after the Russian naval blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, but so far Erdogan has failed to secure a direct meeting between Putin and Zelensky.

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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, where Drueke and Huynh are recovering, was also credited with facilitating the release of the foreign nationals. A high-ranking member of the Saudi government on Thursday said Mohammed’s efforts exemplify its “proactive role in strengthening humanitarian initiatives.” The US administration has thanked the Crown Prince for his efforts to secure the release of the two Americans, but relations between the two countries remain tense over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and, in particular, over the probable role of Mohammed as an orchestrator. the plot to assassinate Saudi American journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In Russia, there was outrage among some nationalists who viewed the deal as a betrayal. Medvedchuk was once seen as a potential replacement for Zelensky, if Russian forces succeeded in overthrowing the government in Kiev and installing a puppet regime. Several of the Ukrainians released in exchange for Medvedchuk and other Russians were members of the far-right Azov regiment, a force that Putin has branded Nazis.

In Ukraine – where Azov troops have been cheered for their bravery during the bloody siege of Mariupol – the deal was celebrated.

A senior foreign ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy, said: “It is telling that Putin has chosen to exchange his friend and one of his long-standing proxies in Ukraine, Medvedchuk, for the heroes of Mariupol,” the move evoked further evidence of how the Russian leader is prioritizing himself over the interests of the Russian people.

“Even if this [war] is terrible for Ukraine … it is terrible for the Russian people,” the official said. “Putin has preferred his own vain imperial ambition to the needs of his people.”

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Kyryl Budanov, who leads The head of Ukraine’s military intelligence said some of the liberated Ukrainians “were subjected to very brutal torture” while in captivity. It is unclear whether Drueke and Huynh endured this treatment, although there are signs that both have gone through stages of physical degradation that will take some time to recover.

Drueke’s aunt said her cousin hasn’t shared many yet details with his family about how his captors treated him and Huynh. She said Drueke and Huynh have some “minor, minor health concerns” and that both are “very dehydrated”, noting that the family doesn’t know exactly when Drueke and Huynh will be ready to take the 14-hour flight to Alabama from Saudi Arabia. to make .

Images of the release of the prisoners which aired on the German television network Deutsche Welle, showed a lean and scrawny Drueke assisted by what appeared to be medical personnel as he walked. However, he had his own bag with him.

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

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

Since their release, the US veterans share an apartment in Saudi Arabia as they take the first steps towards recovery. The former inmates are well aware, Shaw said, that returning to normalcy could be a long road.

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“He didn’t sound sorry to my ears at all — he sounded excited to come home,” Shaw said. “He still has a lot of admiration for the Ukrainian people.”

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

War in Ukraine: what you need to know

The last: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in a speech to the nation on Sept. 21, interpreting the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that wants to use Ukraine as a tool to ” divide and destroy Russia”. .” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counter-offensive in recent days has forced a major Russian withdrawal in the northeastern region of Kharkov, as troops fled the towns and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war, leaving behind large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Organized referenda, allegedly 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 Russian news agencies. From Friday, another phased referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed government in Kherson.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on site since the beginning of the war – here is some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways people in the US can: help support the Ukrainian people like what people around the world have donated.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.

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