The Washington Post

Americans are among hundreds freed in Moscow-kyiv prisoner exchange

- BY DAN LAMOTHE, ISABELLE KHURSHUDYA­N, KAREN DEYOUNG AND ALEX HORTON Khurshudya­n reported from Kyiv. Souad Mekhennet in Washington contribute­d to this report.

Two U.S. military veterans, held captive for months by Russianbac­ked 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 and Andy Tai Huynh, 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 Russian President Vladimir 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.”

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 Russianbac­ked 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.

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