U.S. veterans freed in sprawling Russia-Ukraine prisoner exchange

Two US military veterans held captive for months by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine were released on Wednesday as part of a broad prisoner swap between Moscow and Kyiv that included Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Officials who mediated several countries said.

Alexander J. Drueke and Andy Tai Huynh, both from Alabama, were arrested near the northeast border city of Kharkiv in June. They are among the hundreds of Westerners and others who have traveled to Ukraine and taken up arms against Russian forces.

The Americans were released along with eight other foreigners who were being held by Russia or Russian-backed forces. Moscow also agreed to the release of 215 Ukrainians, including three pregnant women and more than 100 fighters from the Azov regiment, which put up a fierce but ultimately unsuccessful resistance in the strategic southern city of Mariupol, said Andriy Yermak, a top aide of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy by telegram.

Five commanders of the Azov regiment will also be transferred to Turkey, Zelenskyy said. There they will remain “under Erdogan’s protection” until the end of the war, he added. This includes Commander Denys Prokopenko, who held a senior role at the Azovstal Steelworks in Mariupol when the unit made its last stand before Russia completed its capture of the city.

In exchange, Ukraine released Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Kremlin Ukrainian opposition politician, and 55 Russian fighters, Zelenskyy’s office said. Medvedchuk is considered a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter. He was captured in April.

The Russian government did not immediately recognize the deal.

The dramatic exchange first broke 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 past seven months. The development will certainly increase pressure on the Biden administration to secure the release of two Americans still imprisoned in Russia, WNBA star Brittney Griner and Marine veteran Paul Whelan.

Officials at the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia called Americans’ families 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 Drueke and Huynh were scheduled to receive medical checks later in the day.

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“He sounded clear in his head, with clear speech,” Shaw said. “He sounded like himself.”

Shaw expressed surprise at how the men’s release had come about, even as they awaited further details.

“I never thought the Saudi government would be able to do something like this,” she said. “But every port in a storm.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the United States “recognizes Ukraine, including all prisoners of war, regardless of nationality, in its negotiations, and we look forward to these U.S. citizens being reunited with their families.” Blinken also thanked “our Saudi partners for helping lead this humanitarian initiative.”

The Saudi government said in a statement that the other prisoners released were from Britain, Morocco, Sweden and Croatia. Several had been sentenced to death.

Saudi Arabia personally credited itself and Mohammed with arranging the release of the 10 foreigners. But Saudi relations with Moscow have improved in recent months, even as relations with Washington have been strained.

Much of the tension between the US and Saudi Arabia revolves around human rights and Congressional disapproval of the way Mohammed, or MBS as he is more commonly known, has ruled the country he is the de facto leader of under his aging father is King Salman. While the crown prince has said his aim is to modernize the country, repeated attacks on women’s rights have eroded his reputation here – which was already low following the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul. According to a US intelligence assessment, Mohammed approved the operation.

President Biden, seeking support to bring down high gasoline prices and promote unity among the Persian Gulf countries against Iran, visited Saudi Arabia in July but appeared to have made little progress toward US goals. At the same time, Saudi ties with Russia have deepened, including recent agreements by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to reduce production targets and Saudi investment in Russian energy companies despite US and European sanctions.

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British Prime Minister Liz Truss said in a tweet that it was “extremely welcome news that five British nationals being held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine will be safely returned, and with it months of uncertainty and suffering for them and theirs.” families come to an end”.

Truss thanked Zelensky for his efforts to get the prisoners released, adding 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 said 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 Mykolayiv, when he went to investigate the source of the incoming fire. A short time later, Willy Cancel, another Marine Corps veteran in the same group, was mortally wounded, becoming the first known American veteran to die fighting in Ukraine.

The Drueke and Huynh families have had sporadic contact with loved ones since their capture, but the calls often came across as strained and scripted, Shaw, Drueke’s aunt, said in a previous interview. One of the biggest challenges in captivity, Drueke said in an audio provided to The Post in July, was “finding little things to think about, just, you know, [to] fill the boredom.”

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The US government has been warning Americans against traveling to Ukraine or Russia for many months.

Whelan, who was convicted by a Russian court on espionage charges he and his family believe were wrong, is serving a 16-year sentence. Griner, who has been held in Russia since February, was sentenced to nine years in prison last month after pleading guilty to drug-related offences.

The Biden administration considers both to be wrongly imprisoned and has referred their cases to the US government’s chief hostage negotiator.

Khurshudyan reported from Kyiv. Souad Mekhennet in Washington contributed to this report.


A previous version of this story mischaracterized the relationship between Vladimir Putin and Viktor Medvedchuk. Putin is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The newest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in a Sept. 21 address to the nation, describing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West trying 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 major 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 quantities of military equipment.

annexation referendums: According to Russian news agencies, staged referendums that would be illegal under international law are to be held in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine from September 23-27. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed government in Kherson starting Friday.

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