Russia has indicated two American veterans reportedly captured while fighting in Ukraine will be put on trial -- potentially facing death sentences -- as the U.S. government said Tuesday it is still scrambling for details on the men's status.
The State Department had not yet even confirmed that Army veteran Alexander Drueke, 39, and former Marine Andy Huynh, 27, had been captured by the Russians. The agency said it had publicly and privately urged the Russian government to live up to international obligations in the treatment of any troops captured on the battlefield.
"We are working hard to learn more about reports of Americans who may be in Russian custody or in the custody of Russian proxy forces," State Department spokesman Ned Price said, adding that they have been "in direct contact with Russian authorities" but not given any "additional details of the whereabouts of these Americans."
Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov called Drueke and Huynh "soldiers of fortune" who are being held for trial during an NBC interview Monday. Peskov claimed the two vets are not entitled to Geneva Conventions protections that could prevent the death penalty.
"They should be held responsible for those crimes that they have committed, those crimes have to be investigated," Peskov told NBC, saying the men had attacked Russian forces. He said the men are being held in custody, possibly by local Donetsk authorities where the Ukrainian and Russian fighting in the war is now concentrated.
Earlier this month, death sentences were handed down to two British men who were captured by the Russian-backed Donetsk People's Republic while fighting for Ukraine. The U.K.'s Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, called the sentences "a sham judgment with absolutely no legitimacy" and asserted both men were "prisoners of war."
Military.com reported in March that the Russian Ministry of Defense spokesman had issued a similar statement claiming captured troops were mercenaries and not entitled to Geneva protections. At the time, one expert called that claim "a gross distortion of international humanitarian law."
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in a press briefing Tuesday that "it's appalling that a public official in Russia would even suggest the death penalty for two American citizens that were in Ukraine."
Family members and lawmakers confirmed last week that Drueke and Huynh traveled to Ukraine in April and stopped responding to messages around June 8. Videos and images that appeared to show two Americans in custody surfaced on Russian social media Friday, and the identities of Drueke and Hyunh were confirmed to Military.com by the State Department.
Meanwhile, comments in Russian media on the two men's apparent capture raise concerns over their fate. On Thursday, in a clip posted by Russian media observer Julia Davis, a Russian TV host speculated that the two men would likely be tried and given the death penalty. In another clip posted by Davis on Friday, the host flatly said the captured men would not be subject to the Geneva Conventions and would be subject to the death penalty.
Russia's official comments and its media chatter on the veterans come as reports emerge of another American death on the Ukrainian front lines.
Price also confirmed Tuesday that U.S. citizen Stephen D. Zabielski was killed in the war.
Rolling Stone reported that Zabielski was a U.S. Army veteran, based on "multiple sources familiar with the matter." The Army could not confirm Zabielski's service, citing the inability to find his records in its database, and referred Military.com to the National Archives and Records Administration's Military Personnel Center.
"In terms of any of the specifics of his death," Price said when asked about the nature of Zabielski's death in Ukraine, "that is just not something I can weigh in on, in part out of respect for the family during this difficult time."
Zabielski, 52, died on May 15, according to a local obituary that was posted two weeks later on June 1. Price said that the State Department learned of Zabielski's death prior to the publication of the obituary.
"My understanding is that we learned of this individual's death several weeks ago," he said. "It is not our standard procedure to formally announce when an American has been killed."
All told, there are now three American fighters missing in Ukraine and two known casualties. In addition to Drueke and Huyhn, decorated retired Marine Grady Kurpasi was acknowledged as missing Friday. The first American casualty in the war was Marine veteran Willy Joseph Cancel, 22, who was killed in April while working for a military contracting company.
Various government officials have repeatedly told Americans not to travel to Ukraine and not to participate in the war, but reports suggest that thousands may have volunteered in the early days of the conflict. Military.com spoke to one Army veteran in March who personally helped vet between 50 and 100 people -- though he also noted that a handful of volunteers he recently helped go to Ukraine had already come home.
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