Americans captured by Russians in Ukraine: Can the US fight for their release? – NOW TODAY

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Less than two months ago, the United States won the return of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed from Russia, where he was serving a nine-year sentence on controversial charges of assault, by exchanging him for a imprisoned Russian drug dealer.

Now, says a senior Ukrainian official his country is working to replace the prisoners to release two U.S. military veterans captured by Russian forces while serving as war volunteers in Ukraine.

But while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he would fight for their releasesome experts and former U.S. ambassadors say efforts to negotiate the return of the men are facing far sharper winds, citing Russia’s desire to discourage war volunteers from punishing men, and U.S.-Russian diplomatic relations are at their lowest.

“If (Russians) the goal is to discourage people from doing it, if their goal is to punish people who do it, they don’t want to let those people go anytime soon,” said William Pomeranz, acting director of the Kennan Center Wilson Institute, which focuses on research by Russia and Ukraine.

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If the Russians negotiate after all, he said, they will demand “high prices in any potential replacement.”

That could mean longer-term efforts to free Americans Alexander John-Robert Drueke, 39, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, who captured by Russian forces after he was under fire on June 9 in the northeastern region of Kharkov.

“We told all members of our extended family that this was a marathon,” Drueke’s aunt, Dianna Shaw, told USA TODAY.

Shaw, 55, said the U.S. State Department told her family they were “using all means of communication” to reach out to the Russians in an attempt to negotiate their release.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week that officials had been in contact with authorities in Ukraine and Russia but had not been given details about where the men were. Another spokesman declined to comment further when contacted by USA TODAY.

Will Russia agree to an exchange of prisoners?

The Russian military has said it considers foreigners fighting Ukraine to be mercenaries who are not protected as fighters by the Geneva Conventions.

Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov called people “soldiers of happiness” whose fate will be decided by a court but would not rule out the death penalty, he told NBC News. “They should be punished,” Peskov said.

While recently there are two Britons and one Moroccan sentenced to death separatists backed by Russia in eastern Ukraine, several experts told USA TODAY that Russia may not want to further inflame tensions by allowing executions.

In an interview with USA TODAY last week in Kiev, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, chief of Ukraine’s defense intelligence service, confirmed Russian media reports claiming U.S. citizens were held in jail in Donbass and said: “We are working on it.”

“The solution is not easy,” he said. “It’s complicated, but we see a way to solve it. It will be more or less connected with the exchange of prisoners. We have people at our disposal that the Russians really want, that they really need to give back.

“It also won’t happen in a week or two. It will take a few months.”

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Budanov declined to comment on how the Americans were being treated for fear that they would jeopardize ongoing efforts to secure their release.

Meanwhile, on Friday, Zelenskyy told NBC that he they would fight for their release, calling them “heroes.”

In an interview as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival, he said he was sure he would return to his families, adding that “it is a great honor that there are soldiers in the world who are not afraid, and they came to support our sovereignty and independence,” NBC reported. .

‘Unexplored territory’ amid mistrust between the US and Russia

While the U.S. State Department and its embassies in Kiev and Moscow are likely to work to release them, those efforts are hampered by the poor state of U.S.-Russia diplomatic relations, he said. William Taylorformer U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine and Vice President of Russia and Europe at the American Institute of Peace.

The United States has delivered billions of weapons to Ukraine and spearheaded efforts to impose financial sanctions on Russia following its invasion.

“Diplomatic interaction between the United States and Russia is incredibly low. There are almost no talks, “he said.

In Pomeranz’s opinion, “there is no reservoir of goodwill on the part of Russia that wants to negotiate,” he said.

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Melvyn Levitsky, a retired U.S. ambassador and professor of international politics at the University of Michigan, said the exchange of prisoners of war is usually much easier to work out once the conflict is over. For now, the war in Ukraine shows no signs of end.

And Levitsky said the presence of war volunteers on the battlefield means a much more complicated series of negotiations as opposed to trying to bring back figures trapped under the Russian legal system, such as Reed or WNBA star Brittney Grinerwho was detained at Russia’s airport on Feb. 17 after authorities said a search of the bags revealed vape cartridges containing cannabis oil.

Drueke and Huynh are believed to be the first Americans to be captured by Russian forces since the start of the war on February 24th.

“This is a kind of unexplored territory,” Levitsky said. “I guess we’ll come up with something someday. But remember, the Russians will have these prisoners as a kind of lever. “

The captured Americans wanted to help repel the Russian invasion

Drueke, a veteran of the Iraqi military, and Huynh, who served in the Marines, are both from Alabama, but they did not know each other before they decided to travel to Ukraine in April to help repel the Russian invasion, according to their families. Drueke wanted to use his military experience to train Ukrainians on weapons, his family said.

Both families disputed Russian characteristics of being “mercenaries,” noting that they paid for the trip to Ukraine themselves to volunteer.

The two men went missing around June 9 after a unit with which they were under heavy fire, relatives of both families told USA TODAY, saying members of the unit told them the men were escorted.

days later, Russian state television showed a video of the two men, confirming that they had been captured. A Russian media report, citing Drueke, states that the Americans separated and surrendered to the Russian patrol.

Drueke, speaking into the camera from what looked like an office, sent a message to his mother, concluding with a quick hint:

“Mom, I just want to tell you I’m alive and I hope to get home as soon as I can.”

War volunteers warn of risks: US government ‘not coming for you’

U.S. citizens have volunteered to fight in previous foreign conflicts, including the Spanish Civil War, the First Arab-Israeli War and the Civil War in Syria, said Nir Arielli, an associate professor of international history at Leeds University who studies transnational war volunteers.

“Here in Britain, the foreign minister has called on the Russian government not to execute two British foreign volunteers who were captured in Ukraine,” he said. “I expect Britain to use diplomatic channels to try to secure their release (but) the Russians are playing stubbornly.”

Jason FritzJohns Hopkins University lecturer who interviewed some of the roughly 100 U.S. citizens who went to Syria to fight ISIS did not know of anyone who was captured and then returned to the United States

But he said some were warned before they left that they were unlikely to be rescued if caught.

“The U.S. government is pretty clear they’re not coming for you,” he said. “There is no team of special forces that will come to free you. It’s not illegal, but they’re always trying to distract people from it.”

And while such volunteers could serve as medics or coaches, unlike infantry soldiers, opposing forces are unlikely to recognize that difference without solid evidence, Fritz said.

Shaw, Drueke’s aunt, said despite harsh words from Russian officials, she believes it shows “that they know the world is watching. And that gives me more confidence that they will be treated like prisoners of war as they should be. ”

Joy Black, 21, Huynh’s fiancée, said she hoped to be treated under the Geneva Convention, but so far she has had no words about their conditions. For now, she and her mother Darla say they will continue to put pressure on the men to return home safely to Alabama.

“Obviously, we’d like that to happen as soon as possible,” Darla Black said. “We understand that there is a process and that it is not immediate. We just have to take it day by day.”

Contribution: Associated Press

Kim Hjelmgaard reported from Kiev in Ukraine. Chris Kenning reported from Louisville, Kentucky. Kenning is a national news writer. Contact him at [email protected] and on Twitter @chris_kenning.


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