Experts say that the capture and detainment of two American military veterans fighting in Ukraine is a clear message from Russia to other foreigners who want to join the fight: Don’t.
Two men from Alabama, Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, and Alexander Drueke, 39, were captured this month after traveling to Ukraine to fight Russian forces. As of last week, they were being held in a detention facility in the Russian-backed separatist region of Ukraine, according to Russia’s state media outlet, RT. Since then, Russian officials have declared that the veterans are not protected by the Geneva Convention, and even insinuated they could face the death penalty for their involvement in the conflict. Another American, U.S. Marine veteran Grady Kurpasi, was reported missing in Ukraine last week.
Thomas Graham, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it’s clear that Russia is hoping the capture of the two Americans deters any other foreigners from joining the fight.
“The message is: Don’t come here and fight on the Ukrainian side, and kill Russian soldiers or kill Russian allies from Donetsk and Luhansk, there’s a price to be paid if you’re captured,” Graham said.
Huynh and Drueke are veterans of the U.S. Marine Corps and Army, respectively. Drueke served as a chemical operations specialist in the Army Reserve from September 2002 to October 2014, leaving the service as a staff sergeant, according to The War Zone. Huynh, who left the service as a corporal, served in the Marine Corps from August 2014 to August 2018.
It’s unclear how many Americans are currently in Ukraine supporting the country’s opposition to Russia’s invasion, which began in February, though roughly 4,000 Americans were expressing interest in joining the fight in March. Among them are U.S. military veterans who are interested both in fighting alongside and training Ukrainian forces.
The reasoning behind their urge to volunteer varies. Huynh said decided to go when he felt God had “placed a burden on his heart of helping the oppressed people of Ukraine,” according to local news station WAAY-TV. Drueke’s mother said her son had struggled with post-traumatic stress after his time in the Army and “seemed to find purpose in the mission in Ukraine,” the Washington Post reported.
The two veterans were reported missing over a week ago after their families hadn’t heard from them since June 8, the Associated Press reported. They’d both told their families that day that they’d be unreachable because they were going on a “multiday mission,” according to the Post. Drueke’s mother received a call days later on June 13 from a U.S. citizen who said he was in Ukraine with her son, the Post reported, and that he believed the two Americans had been detained by Russian forces.
When it comes to the danger that foreigners who have traveled to Ukraine to assist in the fight against Russia might face, Graham said many of them already understood there “was always a danger that they would be captured.” Indeed, one Marine Corps veteran in Ukraine said what is happening with Huynh and Drueke is not necessarily surprising.
“A show trial and fairly quick execution is better than most of us expected coming here at the start,” the veteran, who requested to only be identified as Jason for security purposes, told Task & Purpose. “There were rumors of Chechens torturing guys pretty terribly even a couple weeks in.”
But those choosing to travel to Ukraine to participate in combat should keep in mind that “their status is critically important” when it comes to being protected under international law, Mark Cancian from the Center for Strategic International Studies told Task & Purpose. Cancian added that volunteers’ status can be “quite questionable” if they are simply civilians from other countries joining the fight.
Under the Geneva Convention, protected persons include members of the armed forces of a party to the conflict; members of militias or volunteers corps who belong to a party to the conflict; supply contractors, journalists, or civilian members of military organizations who accompany the armed forces; and people who live in an area and take up arms against invading forces.
That status is at the center of concerns over Huynh and Drueke’s capture. While international law requires that prisoners of war be afforded certain protections and humane treatment, Russia and its proxies in Ukraine are claiming the two veterans don’t fall into the category of prisoners of war. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told NBC News that the two Americans are “soldiers of fortune” who should be “held responsible for the crimes they have committed,” and declined to say if they would face the death penalty or not.
John Kirby, the National Security Council strategic communications coordinator, called Peskov’s remarks “alarming” and “appalling.” And State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Tuesday that the department has “been in contact with Russian authorities” regarding the two detained Americans, but that they have “not received any formal or official response.”
“The only response we’ve seen has been the response that Russian officials have made in public interviews,” Price said. “So we just don’t have anything from that private engagement.”
A death penalty sentence was handed down to two British men and one Moroccan man earlier this month who were captured fighting in Ukraine and designated as mercenaries. The decision came from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, which Russia recognizes as an independent state. That suggests that Russia, or its proxies in Ukraine, may take the same approach with the two Americans and consider them mercenaries, Graham said. Mercenaries are not protected under the Geneva Convention, and people must meet specific criteria to be considered as such.
According to the definitions in the Geneva Convention, Graham said it would likely be disputed that those captured fighting in Ukraine would be considered mercenaries. For example, they “weren’t receiving excessive pay,” he said, which is one of the established definitions of a mercenary. A court of law is supposed to determine if someone is a mercenary or not, Graham said, and the Americans will likely be “tried in the courts of these so-called People’s Republics,” which still utilize capital punishment.
The U.S. does not recognize those territories as independent, nor does the U.S. believe their authorities are legitimate, Graham said. “So, by definition,” he added, “any court that would try these two men would be illegitimate in our eyes.”
It’s in Russia’s interest to push the issue, claiming the captured veterans are mercenaries and seeing how far they can go and “what advantage can you gain,” Graham said. It’s also in part an effort to get the U.S. to recognize Donetsk as having independent authority.
“The Russians know that this will raise concerns on the American side and that our government will intervene in some way. They don’t want the American government to talk only to Moscow, they would want the United States to talk directly to the authorities of either Luhansk or Donetsk Republics … because if we do talk to them, that’s in some ways unofficially recognizing them as an independent actor on the political stage, on the global stage,” he said. “Which also plays into the Russian narrative.”
Ultimately, Graham echoed U.S. officials’ stance in discouraging those who want to join the fight in Ukraine, especially because of the challenges their potential capture will cause. The U.S. government recognizes that captured Americans will “create all sorts of problems and headaches for the United States,” he said, while not really adding “all that much to the fighting capabilities of the Ukrainians.”
“The U.S. government is saying and requesting that people not travel to Ukraine to actually participate in combat,” Graham said. “I would heed what the government is saying at this point.”