Fears that two ex-US servicemen have been captured by Russian forces in Ukraine grew on Friday after footage shown on Russian state media appeared to show the pair in custody. Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27, were fighting as volunteers with Ukrainian forces when they went missing in action during fierce fighting outside Kharkiv last Thursday. Videos shown on Russian state TV on Friday evening showed both men sitting alone in bare-walled rooms, making what appeared to be pre-scripted pro-Russian statements. Explaining his reasons for volunteering, Mr Huynh said: “When the conflict started on February 24, I saw a lot of news which I now believe was propaganda from the Western side that said Russian forces were indiscriminately killing civilians.
Through my travels (in Ukraine) I have not seen that. My Russian captors treated me humanely, and gave us water and blankets to keep warm.” He added: “The Western media does not show it but the (Ukrainian) commanders are very corrupt and their troops are very ill prepared or supplied.” Mr Drueke’s statement was shorter, saying: “Mum I just want to leave you know that I am still alive and I hope to come back home as soon as I can.” In two other brief videos that appeared on pro-Russian social media channels, both men issued a statement in stilted Russian saying “I am against war”. They appeared to have trouble saying the Russian phrase, suggesting they had been coached to say it.
It was not clear where or when the video footage had been shot. However, it followed another social media post late on Thursday night, showing what appeared to be the two men sitting handcuffed in the back of an army truck. The post was accompanied by a screen grab from a Telegraph article that broke the news of their capture two days ago. It appeared on a Telegram channel called The V, run by a man called Timofei Vi, who appears to have a direct link to the Kremlin. According to Russian reports from 2020, he was hired to set up a non-profit organisation called Dialog to counter what Moscow called “fake news”.
Under the pictures of the captured US soldiers, he wrote: “Jogging through the forest ended sadly, as did the trip to Ukraine for easy money.” A comrade of the pair told The Telegraph: “We are very relieved to see that they are still alive.” Mr Drueke and Mr Huynh are the first Americans believed to have been taken prisoner, although Russian officials have not commented on their capture nor verified the authenticity of the picture of them in captivity. There are unconfirmed reports that a third American has also been captured.
The family of former Marine Corps officer Grady Kurpasi, 49, told the Washington Post he had been missing in the Kherson area since late April after travelling to Ukraine in early March. He was last in contact on 26 April when he was assigned to an observation post during a civilian evacuation, they said. Officials in Washington said they were aware of reports of one other American feared to have been captured, whose whereabouts are currently unknown. They said the issue of Western military volunteers being taken prisoner by Russia had been discussed “broadly” with Britain and other partner nations, but that it had not yet been raised officially with Moscow.
Mr Drueke and Mr Huynh are both from Alabama and had served in the US Army and Marine Corps respectively. Three British military volunteers – Aiden Aslin, Shaun Pinner and Andrew Hill – are already in custody in the pro-Russian breakaway state of the Donetsk People’s Republic. A court there sentenced Mr Pinner and Mr Aslin to death last week. Families of both the British and US servicemen have expressed hopes that they might be released as part of a prisoner exchange for Russian soldiers captured by Ukrainian forces.
While the Kremlin is likely to demand significant concessions for their release, Prof Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert at University College London’s School of Slavonic & East European studies, said he believed Moscow would consider a deal. “They have a tendency to be very pragmatic and opportunist, and I suspect these prisoners would be used for a political purpose,” he told The Telegraph. “In essence it doesn’t really matter whether they are British, Americans, or any other nationality – in each case they are seen as convenient bargaining chips.” He said that while the court in the Donetsk People’s Republic had passed death sentences, the verdict could easily be over-ruled by Moscow, which has sway over the republic’s rulers and which has observed a moratorium on the death penalty since 1996. That would also allow Moscow to be seen to be exercising clemency, which might strengthen its hand in any prisoner-swap negotiations.