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2nd American killed fighting in Ukraine

A view near the front line where Ukrainian forces have been battling Russian forces in Irpin, Ukraine, on March 10, 2022. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
June 22, 2022

The U.S. State Department first confirmed this week the death of the second U.S. citizen killed while fighting in Ukraine.

A June 1 obituary for Stephen Zabielski, published in the upstate New York newspaper The Recorder, said he died while fighting in the Ukrainian village of Dorozhniank on May 15. On Tuesday, the State Department issued a statement to various U.S. news outlets, including Fox News and NBC, confirming that Zabielski died fighting in Ukraine.

Zabielski is now the second known U.S. citizen to die while directly taking part in the armed conflict in Ukraine. 22-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran Willy Joseph Cancel became the first known American killed while fighting in Ukraine in April.

Journalist and filmmaker Brent Renaud was the first known American killed in Ukraine when he was shot and killed by Russian troops while filming in the country in March.

Days after Renaud’s death, a second American was killed alongside other civilians in a Russian artillery strike on the city of Chernihiv in March. The American was later identified as Minnesota native James Hill. He was seeking medical treatment for his Ukrainian wife at the time of his death.

The State Department’s confirmation of Zabielski’s death in combat comes just days after Russian news channels aired footage of two other Americans who were captured while fighting in Ukraine. 39-year-old Army veteran Alexander Drueke and 27-year-old Marine veteran Andy Huynh were reportedly captured after they became separated from the rest of the Ukrainian military unit they were with in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv earlier this month.

Drueke and Huynh were reportedly part of a 10-man team that entered a part of Kharkiv they had thought had been cleared, only to run into multiple Russian tanks and other armored vehicles. Drueke and Huynh reportedly knocked out one of the Russian armored vehicles but were separated from the rest of their team when one of the Russian tanks fired at them.

In an interview this week, Russian Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov indicated that Russia would not consider Drueke and Huynh lawful combatants under the Geneva Conventions. Under the conventions, lawful combatants who are taken as prisoners of war cannot be prosecuted for having participated in armed hostilities against their captors. The conventions did not treat mercenaries as lawful combatants. During the interview, Peskov called Drueke and Huynh “soldiers of fortune,” indicating Russia is likely to treat the two captured Americans as mercenaries rather than lawful combatants.

Under the Geneva Conventions, foreign volunteers are not necessarily mercenaries. For instance, the famous Nepalese Ghurka units of the British armed forces and the members of the French Foreign Legion are not considered mercenaries under the Geneva Conventions and could expect the rules and practices of the conventions to apply.

Many U.S. and international volunteers who have gone to fight in Ukraine have joined through the International Legion of Ukraine. Signing up to join the International Legion of Ukraine involves applying for and signing an enlistment contract with the Ukrainian military. It is not clear whether Drueke and Huynh enlisted through the International Legion of Ukraine.

When asked about Drueke and Huynh during a State Department press briefing last week, spokesman Ned Price said the department had been monitoring the situation before reiterating the administration’s advice for Americans to stay out of Ukraine.

“The broader message – and this is something you’ve heard from us previously, and it’s one we reiterate again today – is that we continue to urge in every way we can American citizens not to travel to Ukraine,” Price said.