The Russian government signaled on Monday that it would not apply the Geneva Conventions — which govern wartime conduct like the treatment of prisoners of war — to the two U.S. veterans who were captured in the fighting in Ukraine earlier this month.
In an interview with NBC journalist Keir Simmons on Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described captured U.S. Army veteran Alexander Drueke, 39, and U.S. Marine veteran Andy Huynh, 27, as “soldiers of fortune” and said they were “involved in illegal activities” when they were captured during fighting near the eastern Ukrainian city of Kherson.
Peskov said Drueke and Huynh are not considered legitimate military combatants and his description of the pair as “soldiers of fortune” implies they are to be considered mercenaries.
He insisted Drueke and Huynh “are not Ukrainian Army” and “are not subject to the Geneva Convention.”
“You’re certain that they weren’t enlisted, you believe they weren’t enlisted in the Ukrainian Army?” Simmons asked.
“It will be in due course,” Peskov replied.
Under the Geneva Conventions, mercenaries are not subject to protections afforded to prisoners of war serving in a regular military capacity. The Geneva Conventions do state that foreign volunteers in another nation’s forces are not necessarily acting as 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 to 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, but they had reportedly been fighting alongside Ukrainian forces at the time of their capture.
The controversy over the prisoner of war status of Drueke and Huynh comes shortly after pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine captured two British nationals and a Morrocan national in the eastern Donetsk region. After a two-day trial, the pro-Russian separatists determined that the trio should be treated as mercenaries and sentenced to death for “mercenary activities and committing actions aimed at seizing power and overthrowing the constitutional order” in the separatist region.
Denis Krivosheyev, the deputy director of Amnesty’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia department, said the three captured British and Morrocan nationals were members of the Ukrainian regular forces and, as such, should have been protected from prosecution for participating in armed hostilities. Krivosheyev also noted that the trio was “not tried by an independent, impartial, regularly constituted court but by Russian proxies.”
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss called the trial of the two British nationals a “sham” with “absolutely no legitimacy.”