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

U.S. military veterans Andy Tai Huynh, right, and Alexander Drueke returned home to the United States on Friday after more than three months in captivity in Russian-occupied Ukraine. They arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York around noon, according to Drueke's aunt. (Andres Kudacki/AP)

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

Days after their capture in June, the Kremlin proclaimed that the men, both American military veterans, were suspected war criminals and refused to rule out that they could face the death penalty. In a phone call with his aunt Thursday, Drueke said that in that moment, it seemed things “could go either way.”

“That was one of those moments,” said the aunt, Dianna Shaw, “where it was a gut punch for me.”

The Americans were released this week as part of a prisoner exchange between the governments in Kyiv and Moscow, an agreement as stunning as it was sprawling. They returned to the United States on Friday.

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 Russian fighters were freed in exchange, along with Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Kremlin Ukrainian opposition politician who has such warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Putin is believed to be the godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter.

Americans freed in sprawling Russia-Ukraine prisoner exchange

Details of the sweeping deal, mediated with involvement from the governments of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have been slow to trickle out.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters covering the U.N. General Assembly in New York that the prisoner exchange was the result of “diplomatic traffic I conducted” with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, calling it an “important step” toward ending the war, according to a transcript of his comments carried by state-run media. Ankara also played a key role in brokering a breakthrough deal this summer that allowed for the resumption of grain exports after Russia’s naval blockage of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, but thus far Erdogan has been unable to secure a direct meeting between Putin and Zelensky.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, where Drueke and Huynh were taken first following their release, also was credited with facilitating the foreign nationals’ release. A senior member of the Saudi government on Thursday said Mohammed’s efforts illustrate his “proactive role in bolstering humanitarian initiatives.” The U.S. government has expressed gratitude to the crown prince for his efforts in freeing the Americans, but relations between the two countries remain strained over Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights and, notably, over Mohammed’s suspected role orchestrating the plot to kill Saudi American journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In Russia, there was outrage among some nationalists who considered the deal a betrayal. Medvedchuk once was seen as a potential replacement for Zelensky, had Russian forces successfully managed to topple the government in Kyiv and install a puppet regime. Several of the Ukrainians released in exchange for Medvedchuk and other Russians were members of the far-right Azov Regiment, a military force Putin has branded Nazis.

In Ukraine — where Azov forces have been cheered for their courage during Russia’s bloody siege of Mariupol — the deal was celebrated.

A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy, said, “It is telling Putin elected to trade his crony and one of his long-term proxies in Ukraine, Medvedchuk, for the heroes of Mariupol,” calling the move further evidence of how the Russian leader prioritizes himself over the interests of the Russian people.

“Even as this [war] is awful for Ukraine … it’s awful for the Russian people,” the official said. “Putin has chosen his own vain imperial ambition over his people’s needs.”

Kyryl Budanov, who leads Ukraine’s chief military intelligence directorate, said some of the liberated Ukrainians had been “subjected to very cruel torture” while in captivity. It is unclear if Drueke and Huynh endured such treatment, although there are signs both went through stages of physical degradation that may take time to reverse.

Drueke’s aunt said her nephew has not yet shared many 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.” Drueke appears to have lost weight.

The two men arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York just before noon Friday and were met by a State Department representative who whisked them through customs, Shaw said. They were photographed smiling upon their arrival.

Footage of the captives’ release that aired earlier this week on German television showed Drueke being assisted by what appeared to be medical personnel as he walked. He was carrying his own bag, however. The photos taken Friday show some skin damage around Drueke’s eyes.

Drueke, a former U.S. soldier, and Huynh, a Marine Corps veteran, disappeared near the city of Kharkiv on June 8 while fighting alongside Ukrainian forces. They were moved a few times during their captivity, and likely were held in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, Drueke’s family believes.

Drueke and Huynh appear to have been kept together throughout their captivity, according to Shaw. For at least some of their time as prisoners, they were also held in the same cell as British national John Harding, who also was freed this week as part of the exchange.

After their release, the American veterans stayed briefly in an apartment in Saudi Arabia while taking their first steps toward recovery. The former captives are keenly aware, Shaw said, that the return to normalcy could be a long road.

“He did not sound regretful to me at all — he sounded excited to be coming home,” Shaw said. “He is still very much in admiration 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.

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