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

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

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

“That was one of those moments,” said Aunt Dianna Shaw, “where it was a big punch for me.”

The Americans were released on Wednesday as part of a prisoner swap between the governments of Kiev and Moscow, an agreement as bewildering as it is sprawling. 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. Fifty five The Russian fighters were released in return, along with Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Kremlin Ukrainian opposition politician who has such cordial relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Putin is believed to be the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter.

The Americans were released during the prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine

Radical deal details, mediated by engagement from the governments of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, it continued to leak Thursday. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters during the United Nations General Assembly in New York that the prisoner exchanges was the result of the “diplomatic trade I conducted” with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who called it is an “important step” towards ending the war that began seven months ago, according to a transcript of his comments reported by state media. Hence Ankara played a key role in mediating a groundbreaking deal this summer that allowed grain exports to resume after the Russian naval blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports, but Erdogan has so far 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, has also been credited with facilitating the release of foreign nationals. A prominent member of the Saudi government on Thursday She said The efforts of Muhammad illustrate its “proactive role in supporting humanitarian initiatives”. The US government has expressed gratitude to the Crown Prince for his efforts in securing the liberation of the two Americans, but relations between the two countries remain strained for Saudi Arabia’s primacy in human rights and, in particular, for Muhammad’s suspected orchestrating role the plot to kill the Saudi American journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In Russia there was indignation among some nationalists who considered the agreement a betrayal. Medvedchuk was once seen as a potential replacement for Zelensky, if Russian forces could successfully lead the government in Kiev and install a puppet regime. Many of the Ukrainians released in exchange for Medvedchuk and other Russians were members of the far-right Azov regiment, a military force Putin branded as Nazis.

In Ukraine, where the Azov forces were applauded for their bravery during the bloody Russia Siege of Mariupol: the agreement was celebrated.

A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy, said: “He is saying that Putin has chosen to exchange his friend and one of his long-term delegates in Ukraine, Medvedchuk, for heroes. of Mariupol “, calling the move further proof of how the Russian leader prioritizes himself over the interests of the Russian people.

“Even so [war] it’s terrible for Ukraine… it’s terrible for the Russian people, ”the official said. “Putin preferred his vain imperial ambition to the needs of his people.”

Kyryl Budanov, who leads The head of the Ukrainian military intelligence directorate said some of the freed Ukrainians were “subjected to a lot of torture” while in cruel captivity. It is unclear whether Drueke and Huynh endured it treatment, although there are signs that both have gone through phases of physical decay that may take time to reverse.

Drueke’s aunt said her nephew 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, minor health considerations” and that both are “very dehydrated”, noting that the family is unsure when Drueke and Huynh might be ready to take the 14-hour flight to Alabama. from Saudi Arabia.

Footage of the prisoners’ release, which aired on the German television network Deutsche Welle Station, showed a skinny, thin Drueke being assisted by what appeared to be medical personnel as he walked. He was carrying his bag, though.

Drueke, a former US soldier, and Huynh, a veteran of the Marine Corps, disappeared near the city of Kharkiv on June 8 as they fought alongside Ukrainian forces. They were moved a few 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 during their captivity, according to Shaw. For at least some of their time as prisoners, they were also held in the same cell as British citizen John Harding, who was also released this week as part of the exchange.

Since their release, US veterans have shared an apartment in Saudi Arabia as they take their first steps towards recovery. Former prisoners are well aware, Shaw said, that returning to normal could go a long way.

“He didn’t seem sorry for me at all – he seemed excited to be coming home,” Shaw said. “He is still very much admired by the Ukrainian people.”

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

War in Ukraine: what you need to know

The last one: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in a speech to the nation on September 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.

Fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in recent days has forced Russia to withdraw to the northeastern region of Kharkiv, as troops fled the towns and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

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

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been in the field since the war began – here are some of their most powerful works.

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

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