Americans in prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine wondered if death was coming

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

Days after their capture in June, the Kremlin proclaimed that men, both American military veterans, var suspected war criminals and refused to rule out that they could face the death penalty. In a phone call with her aunt Thursday, Drueke said that in that moment, it seemed like something “can go either way.”

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

The Americans were released Wednesday as part of a prisoner exchange between the governments in Kiev and Moscow, a deal as stunning as it was far-reaching. In addition to Drueke, 40, and Huynh, 28, the Russian government agreed to release eight other foreign nationals who had joined the war on behalf of Ukraine, plus 215 Ukrainians. Fiftyfive Russian fighters were freed in return, along with Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Kremlin Ukrainian opposition politician who has such warm ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin that Putin is believed to be the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter.

Americans released in massive prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine

Details of the sweeping agreement, conveyed with involvement from the governments of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, continued to trickle out Thursday. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters covering the UN General Assembly in New York, that the prisoner exchange was the result of “diplomatic traffic I conducted” with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky calling it is an “important step” toward ending the war that began seven months ago, according to a transcript of his comments carried by state-run media. Ankara too played a key role in brokering a breakthrough deal this summer that allowed grain exports to resume after Russia’s naval blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, but so far Erdogan has been unable to secure a direct meeting between Putin and Zelensky.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, where Drueke and Huynh are convalescing, was also credited with facilitating the release of foreign nationals. A senior member of the Saudi government on Thursday said Muhammad’s effort illustrate his “proactive role in strengthening 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 tense over Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights and, in particular, over Muhammad’s alleged role in orchestrating the plot to kill Saudi American journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In Russia, there was outrage among some nationalists who viewed the agreement as a betrayal. Medvedchuk was once seen as a potential replacement for Zelensky, whose Russian forces had successfully managed to topple the government in Kiev and install a puppet regime. Several of the Ukrainians released in exchange for Medvedchuk and other Russians were members of the far-right Azov Regiment, a military force Putin has labeled Nazis.

In Ukraine – where the Azov forces have been cheered for their courage under Russia’s bloody siege of Mariupol – the agreement was celebrated.

A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy, said: “It is telling that Putin chose to trade his comrade and one of his long-term proxies in Ukraine, Medvedchuk, for the heroes of Mariupol,” the move further proof of how the Russian leader prioritizes himself over the interests of the Russian people.

“Even like this [war] is terrible for Ukraine … it is terrible for the Russian people,” the official said. “Putin has chosen his own futile imperial ambition over the needs of his people.”

Kyryl Budanov, who leads Ukraine’s Supreme Military Intelligence Directorate said some of the freed Ukrainians had been “subjected to very cruel torture” while in captivity. It is unclear whether Drueke and Huynh endured like this treatment, although there is evidence that both went through stages of physical breakdown that may take time to reverse.

Drueke’s aunt said her nephew has yet to share many details with his family about how his captors treated him and Huynh. She said Drueke and Huynh have some “minor, minor, minor health concerns” and that both are “very dehydrated,” noting that the family is unsure exactly when Drueke and Huynh might be ready to make the 14-hour flight home to Alabama from Saudi Arabia.

Footage of the prisoners’ release, broadcast on German television network Deutsche Welle station, showed a lean and thin Drueke being assisted by what appeared to be medical staff as he walked. However, he carried his own bag.

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

Drueke and Huynh appear to have been kept together throughout their captivity, according to Shaw. 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 the first steps toward recovery. The former prisoners are acutely aware, Shaw said, that returning to normality can be a long road.

“He didn’t sound regretful to me at all — he sounded excited to come home,” Shaw said. “He is still very much admired by 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 latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on September 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West seeking to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.

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

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

Pictures: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground since the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways that those in the United States can help support the Ukrainian people, as well as what people around the world have donated.

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