The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Recording reveals life in captivity for American held by Russian group

Alexander Drueke, in a call with his mother, affirmed he is being held in solitary confinement and conveyed hope that the U.S. government is pursuing his release

A still image from Russian state TV on June 17 shows Alexander Drueke, a U.S. Army veteran captured while fighting for Ukraine. (Ru-Rtr/Reuters)
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An American military veteran captured by Russian forces in Ukraine is being held in solitary confinement but appears hopeful the U.S. government is pursuing his release, according to a phone call with his mother recorded last week and provided to The Washington Post by his family.

Friday’s call between U.S. Army veteran Alexander Drueke and his mother, Lois Drueke, offers new insight into the Biden administration’s efforts in what’s become a high-stakes showdown with Moscow over U.S. involvement in the war. It was their fifth conversation since Drueke and another U.S. military veteran, Andy Tai Huynh, were taken into custody in June, his family said. Both men are from Alabama and traveled overseas as volunteers, joining the campaign despite public warnings from top U.S. officials that doing so was dangerous and ill-advised.

A third U.S. citizen, Grady Kurpasi, is missing in Ukraine and feared captured or killed, his family has said. At least two Americans are believed to have died in the fighting.

Drueke and Huynh are being held by members of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, a Russia-backed group based in eastern Ukraine. That has complicated negotiations, their families said, because the organization is not recognized by the U.S. government and has no diplomatic presence.

In a statement, the State Department said it is in contact with “Ukrainian and Russian authorities” concerning the captured Americans. “We are seeking to learn as much as we can and are in touch with the families,” it said. “Out of respect for the families’ privacy during this time, we have nothing further to add.”

The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment. The Kremlin has signaled it would not extend protections typically afforded to prisoners of war for any Americans and international volunteers detained in Ukraine, lending to the sense of urgency surrounding these cases.

Family of American missing in Ukraine says U.S. response is inadequate

Drueke’s aunt, Dianna Shaw, said that, to date, each conversation between mother and son coincides with separate calls involving U.S. government personnel assigned to his case.

“The pattern is always the same,” Shaw said in an email. “First, he calls the State Department and then he calls her. And then she and the State Department immediately talk and compare notes.”

It has been clear to the family that Drueke is closely monitored during the calls, making the conversations feel scripted and tense, Shaw said. Friday’s seemed a little less strained, she noted. “This one was more, ‘Hi, Mom. How are you?’ ” Shaw said.

The call, which the family edited to remove personal details, lasted more than four minutes and highlighted ongoing diplomatic efforts between the United States, Britain and Ukraine. Shaw said officials are working to have Drueke and Huynh included on a list of prisoners for potential action, such as negotiated release.

During their conversation Friday, Lois Drueke made clear to her son, “It just might be awhile.” Their State Department case worker, she said, had noted that “they were meeting with ambassadors and teams from Ukraine and also from the U.K. to discuss the British prisoners and all of y’all, and you and Andy were on the agenda.”

Drueke, 39, and Huynh, 27, were captured by Russian forces outside the city of Kharkiv, near Ukraine’s northeastern border. Drueke’s family maintains that he went overseas to train Ukrainian troops on U.S. weapons, not to engage in combat. Huynh did take up arms, according to his fiancee’s family, in addition to training Ukrainian troops and bringing in medical supplies.

Drueke volunteered little information during Friday’s phone call with his mother. “I’m doing fine. No real danger currently,” he said, before offering that he had seen Huynh the day prior when they spoke with a lawyer.

When Lois Drueke asked her son if he is still being held in solitary confinement, he affirmed, “Yes, ma’am. I’m still in the same location” and acknowledged that the room’s size presents challenges for day-to-day living. It’s big enough for some exercise, he said, but it has been difficult “finding little things to think about, just, you know, [to] fill in the boredom.”

He said the State Department official assigned to his case did not convey “any concrete news” during their most recent conversation, and he asked his mother whether she had been told of “any new steps or progress.” In response, she disclosed the planned meetings between senior officials in the U.S., British and Ukrainian governments.

Drueke expressed gratitude for others’ efforts on his behalf.

Hunyh has still not spoken with any U.S. officials or his family, said his fiancee, Joy Black.

“We don’t know the reason,” said Darla Black, Joy Black’s mother, who described Hunyh as her “bonus son” who has won over the family with his humor and empathy.

Ukraine war volunteers are coming home, reckoning with difficult fight

Drueke’s calls have revealed some insights into his captors’ thinking, Shaw said. They appear proud to be detaining the Americans, and she said she suspects they have coached him on what to say. In one instance, when his mother asked what he was eating, he responded “food” and gave other vague answers to straightforward questions, she said.

The families of both men have insisted their captors treat them in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, which offer prisoners of war protection from torture, summary execution and prosecution for fighting in armed conflict, and they would like to see the International Committee of the Red Cross visit them and assess their condition.

The Kremlin has described Drueke and Huynh as mercenaries with no protection, suggesting they could be sentenced to death.

Their captivity has underscored the diplomatic impasse between Washington and Moscow since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the challenges President Biden and his administration face in trying to secure the men’s release.

Facing growing public pressure, Biden has expressed personal interest in the case of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was arrested in Russia on a drug charge, and that of Paul Whelan, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran sentenced by a Russian court to 16 years in prison on espionage charges that he has denied.