DNIPRO, Ukraine — Fears mounted Tuesday over the fate of two Americans reportedly taken captive while fighting for Ukraine, as Russia declared that international protections for prisoners of war did not apply to foreign “mercenaries” and that capital punishment could not be ruled out if they were put on trial in separatist territory.
Those comments out of Moscow came as U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland visited Ukraine to meet with the country’s top prosecutor and offer U.S. assistance in investigating and prosecuting alleged war crimes committed by Russian troops during the nearly 4-month-old war.
The trip came against a backdrop of intense fighting for a pair of strategically important cities in eastern Ukraine, a bloody war of attrition in which Russian forces are trying to wear down outgunned Ukrainian troops with unrelenting artillery barrages.
Western countries including the United States are sending Ukraine more heavy weaponry to try to counter Moscow’s military superiority in the battle for the country’s industrial heartland, but Ukraine has repeatedly appealed for additional armaments.
In his latest overnight address to compatriots, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denounced Russia’s “brutal offensive” in the region, known as the Donbas. He acknowledged difficult fighting as Moscow presses its advance on the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, which are separated by a river.
Ukrainian defenders of Severodonetsk are concentrated in a besieged industrial complex, where civilians are sheltering as well under sustained Russian shellfire.
In the environs of both cities, there were signs that the Ukrainian defenses were crumbling.
A Ukrainian commander, who asked his name not be used so he could speak freely, described a Russian advance in the front-line village of Toshkivka, saying his battalion was forced to withdraw after losing too many fighters.
“There aren’t enough forces or weapons,” he said. “For every shot of ours, the Russians respond with 20.”
Later, the head of the district military administration, Roman Vlasenko, told Ukrainian television that the village was “controlled entirely by the Russians.”
Moscow’s threat against captives purportedly held by pro-Russian separatists was delivered by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in a call with reporters Tuesday. He said foreign fighters who have taken up arms for Ukraine are mercenaries, not prisoners of war, and thus are not entitled to protections under the Geneva Convention, which forbid prosecution of captured fighters for lawful participation in combat.
Two captured Britons and a Moroccan were sentenced to death earlier this month in what British authorities described as a show trial held in Russian-controlled separatist territory. The episode prompted speculation the captives would be used to try to extract concessions such as a prisoner swap.
The two Americans – Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27 – went missing this month while fighting near Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, 25 miles from the Russian border. Both are military veterans from Alabama.
Russia’s state-controlled RT network last week showed interviews with the pair at what it said was a detention center in the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, or DPR, a separatist statelet recognized only by Russia. Russia has a moratorium on the death penalty, but the DPR does not.
The U.S. State Department says it still cannot confirm that two and possibly three U.S. citizens have been captured, as their families assert, nor the whereabouts of the men.
A senior State Department official, briefing reporters in Washington on the condition of anonymity, said Moscow had responded to official U.S. and British queries by saying it was not a Russian matter, because any such captives would have been in the hands of separatists.
U.S. officials said Tuesday the government has “vigorously” protested the Kremlin’s assertion that foreigners captured fighting in Ukraine, including Americans, would not be covered by the Geneva conventions.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said U.S. diplomats have made repeated inquiries to the Russian government, as well as to the International Committee of the Red Cross, Ukrainian officials and others, to get information on the missing men.
From the Russian government, Price said, “We have not received any formal or official response.”
U.S. officials said the Russian evasiveness is typical of how Moscow responds to all cases of captured, arrested or otherwise detained American citizens, including that of U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner. A planned telephone call from Griner to her wife in the United States failed to take place despite numerous attempts. The couple blamed the U.S. Embassy. The White House said Tuesday the call would be rescheduled.
Russian authorities have set up numerous obstacles for U.S. consular officers to meet with Griner, much as they have done for other detainees, the anonymous senior State Department official said. Arrested at the Moscow airport in February on drug charges, Griner has regular phone contact with her Russian lawyers, the official said, but U.S. consular personnel have not seen her since May 19.
Garland’s unannounced trip to Ukraine to meet with the country’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, came as Ukrainian authorities are attempting to deal with more than 15,000 war crimes complaints. Other countries, including France and Britain, have also stepped in to offer technical, forensic and legal assistance to Ukraine in investigating and prosecuting alleged atrocities.
After his visit, Garland vowed that “there is no place to hide” from accountability for war crimes.
Moscow says evidence of grisly crimes against civilians in previously occupied areas of Ukraine, including a string of towns and suburbs outside the capital Kyiv, is fabricated.
Reverberations from Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, meanwhile, continued to be felt worldwide, including looming food shortages caused by Ukraine’s inability to ship grain from Black Sea ports blockaded by Russia, and a fuel crunch in Europe triggered by Moscow’s reduction of natural gas supplies. The Kremlin blames both crises on the West.
Although Russian warships make it impossible for commercial shipping traffic to reach Ukrainian ports, Ukraine has staged attacks challenging Moscow’s maritime superiority in the Black Sea. British military intelligence said Tuesday that Ukraine’s claim last week to have successfully attacked a Russian naval tug with Harpoon anti-ship missiles was “almost certainly” accurate.
NATO has refrained from direct confrontation with Russia while supporting Ukraine. But a potential flashpoint has emerged in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which borders alliance member Lithuania, a Baltic state that is accustomed to threats from Moscow.
Russia’s security chief on Tuesday threatened “significant negative consequences” over Lithuania’s refusal to allow land transit of some goods to the tiny patch of Russian territory. The remarks by Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s security council, came on a visit to Kaliningrad and were reported by the RIA-Novosti news agency.
Also Tuesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the European Union’s envoy to Russia to press the issue, according to news reports. The ministry had already summoned Lithuania’s top diplomat to demand the reversal of what it called the “openly hostile” moves.
The government in Vilnius says the partial blockages are in line with European Union sanctions. Kaliningrad remains accessible by sea.
This is not the first time in the course of the war that Moscow has menaced NATO members on the alliance’s eastern flank, raising fears of a wider confrontation. It has previously aimed harsh rhetoric at Poland, which has been instrumental in shipping weaponry to Ukraine, and has taken in the largest number of Ukrainian refugees.
As fighting in the east grows fiercer, Zelenskyy said Russia’s offensive against Severodonetsk and other eastern areas was intensifying in part because of Moscow’s fears that Ukraine is advancing in its aspirations to join the EU. Although the process will likely take years, EU meetings later this week are expected to yield formal support for creating a path for Ukrainian membership in the bloc.
“Russia is very nervous about our activity,” Zelenskyy said.
In his overnight address to the nation, the president also extended thanks to Hollywood actor-director Ben Stiller, with whom he met on Monday.
Stiller, who has most recently garnered critical acclaim for the streaming TV series “Severance,” is a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. refugee agency. As part of a visit to the region, he met with refugees and officials, including U.S. Ambassador Bridget Brink, and visited a Kyiv suburb devastated during a Russian occupation early in the war.
“I am grateful to Ben for his constant attention to the needs of Ukrainians,” said Zelensky, who shares with Stiller a background as a comic actor. Stiller in turn described the Ukrainian leader as his “hero.”