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Americans freed in sprawling Russia-Ukraine prisoner exchange

Alexander Drueke and Andy Tai Huynh, U.S. military veterans detained since June, were released as part of a deal negotiated with involvement from Saudi Arabia

A Ukrainian soldier sets up a national flag on the border between the Kharkiv and Donetsk areas of Ukraine on Sept. 20. (Yevgen Honcharenko/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Two U.S. military veterans, held captive for months by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine, were released Wednesday as part of a sprawling prisoner exchange between Moscow and Kyiv brokered with involvement from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, officials in multiple countries said.

Alexander J. Drueke, 40, and Andy Tai Huynh, 28, both of Alabama, were captured in June near the northeastern border city of Kharkiv. They are among the hundreds of Westerners and other people who have traveled to Ukraine and taken up arms against Russian forces.

The Americans were released along with eight other foreigner nationals held by Russia or Russian-backed forces. Moscow also agreed to release 215 Ukrainians, including three pregnant women and more than 100 fighters from the Azov Regiment, which mounted a fierce but ultimately unsuccessful resistance in the strategic southern city of Mariupol, said Andriy Yermak, a top aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, on Telegram.

Five Azov Regiment commanders also will be transferred to Turkey, Zelensky said. They will remain there until the end of the war “under Erdogan’s protection,” he added. They include commander Denys Prokopenko, who held a leadership role at Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant as the unit made its final stand before Russia finalized its capture of the city.

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

The Russian government did not immediately acknowledge the deal.

The dramatic exchange was first disclosed hours after 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 is certain to intensify 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 U.S. 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 Drueke 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.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the United States “is appreciative of 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 to spearhead 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 credited itself and Mohammed personally with arranging the releases of the 10 foreigners. But Saudi relations with Moscow have improved in recent months even as ties with Washington have continued under stress.

Much of the U.S.-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 U.S. intelligence assessment, Mohammed 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 U.S. 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 U.S. and European sanctions.

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 Zelensky for his efforts to release the prisoners, and she added that Russia “must end the ruthless exploitation of prisoners of war and civilian detainees for political ends.”

At least half a dozen U.S. 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, Drueke’s aunt, 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 U.S. 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 it has assigned their cases to the U.S. government’s top hostage negotiator.

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

correction

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

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

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