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

As they were led out of their prison cell deep in Russian-occupied Ukraine, Alexander Drueke and Andy Tai Huynh pondered their uncertain fate: Would they be released or would they be killed?

A few days after their capture in June, the Kremlin proclaimed that men, both American military veterans, were suspected war criminals and refused to rule out that they would face the death penalty. In a phone call with her aunt on Thursday, Drueke said that at the time it seemed like things “could go either way.”

“It was one of those times,” said aunt, Dianna Shaw, “where it was a punch for me.”

The Americans were freed on Wednesday as part of a prisoner swap between the governments of Kyiv and Moscow, a deal as impressive as it is sprawling. Besides Drueke, 40, and Huynh, 28, the Russian government agreed to release eight other foreign nationals who had joined the war on behalf of Ukraine, as well as 215 Ukrainians. Fifty-five Russian fighters were freed in exchange, along with Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Kremlin Ukrainian opposition politician who enjoys such warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Putin is said to be godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter.

Americans freed in massive prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine

Details of the radical agreement, negotiated with involvement from the governments of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, continued to flow on Thursday. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters covering the UN General Assembly in New York than the exchange of prisoners was the result of “diplomatic traffic that I conducted” with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, calling It is an “important step” towards ending the war that began seven months ago, according to a transcript of his remarks released by state media. Ankara too played a key role in brokering a landmark deal this summer that saw grain exports resume after the Russian naval blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports, but so far Erdogan has not been in able to get a direct meeting between Putin and Zelensky.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, where Drueke and Huynh are recovering, has also been credited with facilitating the release of foreign nationals. A senior Saudi government official on Thursday said Muhammad’s efforts illustrate its “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 strained due to Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and, in particular, of the alleged role of Mohammed in the orchestration the plot to kill Saudi American journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In Russia, there was outrage from some nationalists who viewed the deal as a betrayal. Medvedchuk was once seen as a potential replacement for Zelensky, should Russian forces succeed in overthrowing the Kyiv government and installing a puppet regime. Several of the Ukrainians freed in exchange for Medvedchuk and other Russians were members of the far-right Azov Regiment, a military force that Putin called Nazi.

In Ukraine – where the Azov forces were acclaimed for their courage in Russia’s bloody war siege of Mariupol – the case was celebrated.

A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive diplomacy, said: ‘It’s telling Putin that he chose to swap his buddy and one of his longtime proxies in Ukraine, Medvedchuk, against the heroes of Mariupol,” calling the move is further evidence of how the Russian leader puts himself ahead of the interests of the Russian people.

“Even though that [war] it’s awful for Ukraine… it’s awful for the Russian people,” the official said. “Putin chose his own vain imperial ambition over the needs of his people.”

Kyryl Budanov, who directs Ukraine’s General Directorate of Military Intelligence said some of the freed Ukrainians had been “subjected to very cruel torture” while in captivity. It is not known whether Drueke and Huynh endured such treatment, although there are signs both have gone through stages of physical degradation which may take time to reverse.

Drueke’s aunt said her nephew has yet to share much details with his family about how his captors treated him and Huynh. She says Drueke and Huynh have “minor, minor, minor health issues” and that both are “very dehydrated”, noting that the family is unsure when Drueke and Huynh might be ready to make the 2 p.m. flight back to Alabama from Saudi Arabia. .

Footage of the captives’ release broadcast on German television station Deutsche Welle showed a scrawny, scrawny Drueke being assisted by what appeared to be medical personnel as he walked. He was, however, carrying his own bag.

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

Drueke and Huynh appear to have been kept together throughout their captivity, according to Shaw. For at least part 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 swap.

Since their release, the American veterans have shared an apartment in Saudi Arabia as they take the first steps towards healing. Former captives are acutely aware, Shaw said, that getting back to normal could be a long road.

“He didn’t seem regretful to me at all — he seemed thrilled to be coming home,” Shaw said. “He is still very admiring of 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 an address to the nation on September 21, describing 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 into the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled towns and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large quantities of military equipment.

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

Pictures: Washington Post photographers have been in the field since the start of the war. Here are some of their most powerful works.

How you can help: Here’s how those in the United States can help support the people of Ukraine as well as what people around the world have donated.

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

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