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

As they are led from their cell deep into Russian-occupied Ukraine, Alexander Druki and Andy Tai Huynh ponder their unknown fate: were they about to be released – or would they be killed?

Days after their capture in June, the Kremlin announced that Both He was an American veteran suspected war criminals and refusal to disqualify They may face the death penalty. In a phone call with his aunt on Thursday, Drake said that at that moment, it looked like something “You can go either way.”

“That was one of those moments where it was such a shock to me,” Aunt Diana Shaw said.

The Americans were released on Wednesday as part of a prisoner exchange between the governments in Kyiv and Moscow, an agreement as stunning as it was sprawling. In addition to Drivik, 40, and Huynh, 28, the Russian government has agreed to release eight other foreign nationals who joined the war on Ukraine’s behalf, as well as 215 Ukrainians. Fifty-five The Russian fighters were released in return, along with Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Kremlin Ukrainian opposition politician who has intimate relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to the point that Putin is believed to be the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter.

Americans freed in sprawling prisoner exchange deal between Russia and Ukraine

Details of the overall deal by sharing From the governments of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, it continued the flow on Thursday. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters covering the United Nations General Assembly In New York to exchange prisoners It was the result of a “diplomatic move I made” with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, calling It is an “important step” towards ending the war that began seven months ago, according to the text of his statements carried by state media. Ankara too He played a key role in brokering a breakthrough deal this summer that allowed grain exports to resume after Russia’s naval closure of Ukraine’s ports on the Black Sea, but Erdogan has so far been unable to secure a face-to-face meeting between Putin and Zelensky.

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, where Darweik and Houyina are recovering, also had a role in facilitating the release of foreign nationals. A prominent member of the Saudi government Thursday He said Muhammad’s efforts Clarify his “proactive role in promoting humanitarian initiatives”. The US government has expressed gratitude to the crown prince for his efforts in securing the release of the Americans, but relations between the two countries remain strained over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, particularly over Mohammed’s suspected role in coordinating it. The plot to kill the Saudi-American journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In Russia, there was anger among some nationalists who considered the deal a betrayal. Medvedchuk was once seen as a possible alternative to Zelensky, as Russian forces successfully overthrew the government in Kyiv and installed 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 that Putin called the Nazis.

In Ukraine – where the Azov forces were Cheers for their bravery during bloody Russia Siege of Mariupol – the deal was celebrated.

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

“So this [war] It is terrible for Ukraine… It is terrible for the Russian people,” the official said. “Putin has chosen his vain imperial ambition over the needs of his people.”

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Kirill Budanov, who leads The Ukrainian Military Intelligence Directorate said some of the liberated Ukrainians were subjected to “extremely cruel torture” while in captivity. It’s unclear whether Drueke and Huynh experienced this Treatment, although there are signs that both have gone through phases of physical deterioration that may take time to reverse.

Drewic’s aunt said her nephew hasn’t shared much yet Details with his family about how his captors treat him and his family. She said Drueke and Huynh have some “minor, small, and minor health considerations” and they are both “extremely dehydrated,” noting that the family isn’t sure exactly when Drueke and Huynh will be ready for the 14-hour flight home to Alabama from Saudi Arabia.

Snapshots from the release of prisoners Broadcast on German television station Deutsche Welle, it showed the emaciated and slender Darwick assisted by what appeared to be medical staff as he walked. However, he was carrying his own bag.

Drake, a former US soldier, and Huynh, a Marine veteran, disappeared near the city of Kharkiv on June 8 while fighting alongside Ukrainian forces. The Druki family believe they were taken several times during their captivity, and it is possible that they were held in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.

According to Shaw, it appears that Drueke and Huynh have been together throughout their captivity. For at least some time as prisoners, they were also held in the same cell with British citizen John Harding, who was also released this week as part of the exchange.

Since their release, American veterans have been sharing an apartment in Saudi Arabia as they take the first steps toward recovery. Shaw said the ex-prisoners are well aware that returning to normal life may be a long way to go.

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“He showed absolutely no remorse to me — he seemed excited to be going home,” Shaw said. “He is still very impressed with the Ukrainian people.”

Karim Fahim in Beirut. Robin Dixon and Marie Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia; and John Hudson of New York contributed to this report.

The war in Ukraine: what you need to know

Last: 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 us Live updates here.

Fighting: The successful Ukrainian counterattack forced a major Russian withdrawal in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled the cities and villages they had occupied from the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Russian news agencies reported that the interim referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are scheduled for September 23-27 in the breakaway regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. The Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson will hold another referendum in stages, starting on Friday.

Pictures: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground since the start of the war. Here are some of their most powerful works.

How you can help: Here are the ways those in the United States can do it Help support the Ukrainian people Beside What people donate around the world.

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