The families of Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27 said last week that the pair, both US military veterans and residents of Alabama, had disappeared in Ukraine. Family members said they had last been heard from on June 8 in the Kharkiv region.
Fellow fighters have said that both men were captured during clashes with Russian forces on June 9. If confirmed, they would be the first Americans captured in the conflict. However, Washington and Moscow have offered few specifics in recent days.
The US Department of State has said it was also aware of a third US citizen, identified by family as Marine veteran Grady Kurpasi, 49, who had travelled to Ukraine but has not been heard from since April. It has not given any further details, although his family has said he may also be a prisoner of war.
Meanwhile, Russian state TV has aired images purporting to show Drueke and Huynh in detention, although they did not identify their location or who specifically was holding them.
Russia’s Interfax news agency, citing an unidentified source, reported on Tuesday that Drueke and Huynh were being held in the Russian-backed separatist-controlled region of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
The report, which has not been confirmed, would be significant. In early June, a court in the breakaway region sentenced two British citizens and a Moroccan national to death for supporting Ukraine in the fight against Russia, who invaded on February 24.
Here’s what is known about the allegedly captured Americans.
What has Russia said?
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, in an interview with NBC News that aired on Monday, appeared to confirm that the two men had been captured while fighting in Ukraine. However, speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Peskov said Moscow did not know the location of the two men.
He called Drueke and Huynh “soldiers of fortune”, reiterating Moscow’s stance that foreign fighters aiding Ukraine were “mercenaries” and therefore not protected by the Geneva Conventions, which establish international standards for humane treatment of prisoners of war.
He said the men “were involved in firing and shelling our military personnel. They were endangering their lives”, adding the pair “should be held responsible for those crimes that they have committed”.
When asked if the pair could be sentenced to death if put to trial in a separatist court, the spokesman said: “We cannot exclude anything because these are decisions for the court. We never comment on them and have no right to interfere in court decisions.”
While Russia does not carry out the death penalty, the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, whose independence is recognised only by Moscow, have it on their statute books.
“We are talking about mercenaries who threatened the lives of our service personnel,” Peskov told reporters. “And not only ours, but also the service personnel of the [Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics].”
What has the US said?
US officials have maintained they are investigating the situation, but have to date not confirmed details of the men’s capture.
Last week, US President Joe Biden said that he did not know the whereabouts of Drueke and Huynh.
On Tuesday, US Department of State spokesman Ned Price said Washington has been in “direct contact” with Russian authorities and “have not been provided either by Russian authorities or by Russian proxy forces or any other entity with additional details of the whereabouts of these Americans”.
“We are pursuing every channel, every opportunity we have to learn more and to support their families, especially in this difficult hour,” he said.
Price said the US has repeatedly “called on the Russian government and its proxies to live up to their international obligations in their treatment of all individuals, including those captured fighting in Ukraine”.
“We expect, and in fact, international law and the law of war expects and requires, that all those who have been captured on the battlefield be treated humanely and with respect and consistent with the laws of war,” he said.
Meanwhile, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby called “appalling” the Kremlin’s suggestion that Drueke and Huynh could be sentenced to death.
Kirby declined to say what steps the US would take if its citizens are not treated as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.
Who are Alexander Drueke and Andy Huynh?
The families have said both Drueke and Huynh had been compelled to travel to Ukraine after seeing reports of alleged atrocities committed by Russian forces following the invasion.
While the men did not know each other prior to travelling to Ukraine, they became “buds” while there, Drueke’s aunt told The Associated Press news agency.
Drueke, who is from Tuscaloosa, had served two tours in Iraq with the US Army, the last as a lead gunner in Baghdad in 2008 and 2009, his mother, Lois Drueke has said. She recently told the Reuters news agency that Drueke did not go to Ukraine “in a military capacity. He went as a civilian with military training.”
Huynh is the son of Vietnamese immigrants and was born and raised in Orange, County California, according to the Decatur Daily newspaper. The former US marine had moved to Trinity, Alabama to be with his fiancee and was studying robotics at Calhoun Community College when the Russian invasion began.
“I know it wasn’t my problem, but there was that gut feeling that I felt I had to do something,” Huynh had told the Decatur Daily, describing his decision to travel to Ukraine. “Two weeks after the war began, it kept eating me up inside and it just felt wrong. I was losing sleep … All I could think about was the situation in Ukraine.”