Two US military veterans held captive for months by Russian-backed separatists in northeastern Ukraine have been released along with eight other foreigners, part of a broader prisoner exchange between Moscow and Kyiv that was brokered with involvement from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the government in Riyadh and one of the American’s families said Wednesday.
U.S. veterans Alex Drueke, Andy Huynh freed in Russia-Ukraine prisoner swap
Alexander J. Drueke and Andy Tai Huynh, both of Alabama, were captured in June near the northeastern border city of Kharkiv. They are among the hundreds of Westerners who have traveled to Ukraine to take up arms against Russian forces. Drueke served previously in the US Army while Huynh is a Marine Corps veteran.
The men’s release was startling development, its announcement coming just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had ordered the mobilization of 300,000 military reservists to shore up the Kremlin’s staggering battlefield losses over the last seven months. And while it was not immediately clear who was freed in exchange for Drueke and Hyunh, their exit from captivity is certain to intensify pressure on the Biden administration to secure the release of two Americans imprisoned in Russia, WNBA star Brittney Griner and Marine veteran Paul Whelan.
Officials at the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia called the Americans’ families on Wednesday morning, said Dianna Shaw, Drueke’s aunt. Drueke’s mother, Lois Drueke, spoke to him for about 10 minutes, and said her son appeared to be in good condition, Shaw said, noting that Dreuke and Huynh were expected to receive medical screenings later in the day.
“He sounded clearheaded, with clear speech,” Shaw said. “He sounded like himself.”
Shaw expressed amazement at how the men’s release had come about, even as they awaited additional details.
“I never dreamed it was a possibility that the Saudi government would be able to do something like this,” she said. “But any port in a storm.”
The Saudi government said in a statement that the other prisoners released were from Britain, Morocco, Sweden and Croatia.
Saudi Arabia credited itself and Mohammed personally with arranging the releases, although Riyadh’s role remains unclear. But Saudi relations with Moscow have improved in recent months even as ties with Washington have continued under stress.
Much of the US-Saudi strain revolves around human rights, and congressional disapproval of the way Mohammed, or MBS, as he is widely known, has run the country of which he is de facto leader under his aging father King Salman. While the crown prince has said his goal is to modernize the country, repeated assaults on the rights of women have undermined his reputation here — already low following the 2018 killing by Saudi agents in Istanbul of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. According to a US intelligence assessment, MBS approved the operation.
President Biden, looking for assistance in easing the high price of gasoline and promoting unity among Persian Gulf countries against Iran, visited Saudi Arabia in July but appeared to make little progress toward US goals. At the same time, Saudi relations with Russia have deepened, including recent agreements, through the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, to reduce production targets, and Saudi investments in Russian energy companies despite US and European sanctions.
Biden administration spokespersons said they were awaiting Ukraine’s announcement of the releases before commenting.
Hugely welcome news that five British nationals held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine are being safely returned, ending months of uncertainty and suffering for them and their families.
— Liz Truss (@trussliz) September 21, 2022
British Prime Minister Liz Truss said in a tweet that it was “hugely welcome news that five British nationals held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine are being safely returned, ending months of uncertainty and suffering for them and their families.”
Truss thanked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for his efforts to release the prisoners, and added that Russia “must end the ruthless exploitation of prisoners of war and civilian detainees for political ends.”
At least half a dozen US citizens are believed to have been killed in Ukraine since the invasion began in February. Another American citizen, retired Marine Corps officer Grady Kurpasi, was reported missing in southern Ukraine in late April. He was not among the prisoners released Wednesday, said George Heath, a friend speaking on behalf of Kurpasi’s family
Kurpasi was last seen near the southern city of Mykolaiv, when he went to investigate the source of incoming fire. A short time later, Willy Cancel, another Marine Corps veteran in the same group, was fatally wounded, becoming the first known American veteran to die in combat in Ukraine.
The Drueke and Huynh families have had sporadic contact with their loved ones since their capture, but the calls often seemed tense and scripted, Shaw said in an earlier interview. One of the biggest challenges in captivity, Drueke said in audio provided to The Post in July, was “finding little things to think about, just, you know, [to] fill in the boredom.”
The US government has, for many months, strongly cautioned Americans against traveling either to Ukraine or Russia.
Whelan, who was convicted by a Russian court on espionage-related charges he and his family say are false, is serving a 16-year prison sentence. Griner, held in Russia since February, was sentenced last month to nine years in prison after pleading guilty to drug charges.
The Biden administration regards both as having been wrongfully detained, and has assigned their cases to the US government’s top hostage negotiator.
Souad Mekhennet 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 Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia .” Follow our live updates here.
The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.
How you can help: Here are ways those in the US can help support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.
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