Americans Alexander John Robert Druke and Andy Tay Ngoc Huynh have arrived in New York City after their release earlier this week in a Saudi-mediated prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine. Their families said they believed the men were in good health.
“We know they’re talking, they’re breathing, they’re mobile, and they look a lot like themselves,” Darla Black, Huynh’s fiancée mother, told CNN Friday.
The two men were captured in June while fighting for Ukraine in a battle near Kharkiv. Their pro-Russian kidnappers, the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), is a Russian-backed, self-proclaimed republic that has governed a separate part of Ukraine’s Donetsk region since 2014.
CNN previously reported that the Drake and Henne families did not speak to the Alabama men during their months-long imprisonment until they received unexpected phone calls from the US embassy in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday.
“I have your son standing next to me,” Bunny Drake remembers a woman from the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia telling her.
The families did not know that a prisoner exchange was being prepared.
“My brain just couldn’t make out because there was no warning. It just came out of nowhere,” Drwick’s mother told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
Huynh’s fiancée Joy Black told CNN’s Erin Burnett that Huynh ordered spaghetti – a meal he’d been craving since he was in Ukraine – as soon as he returned to Alabama.
Even after their arrest, their families say the men said they did not regret going to fight with the Ukrainians.
“Alex told me emphatically no, no sorry,” his aunt, Diana Shaw, told CNN. “They really want people to understand that Ukraine needs our support. They need the support of all democratic countries. They need democracies to unite and push (Russian President Vladimir) Putin back.”
Four Russian-occupied regions began voting Friday in referendums on joining Russia, according to their separatist leaders, in a move that raises the risks of an invasion of Moscow. Referendums, considered illegal under international law and rejected by Western and Kiev governments as a hoax, could pave the way for Russia’s annexation of the territories, allowing Moscow to frame the ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive as an attack on Russia itself.
President Joe Biden said on Friday that the United States would never recognize Russia’s referendums in occupied parts of Ukraine.
“The United States will never recognize Ukrainian territory as anything other than part of Ukraine,” Biden said. “The Russian referendums are sham — a false excuse to try to annex parts of Ukraine by force in flagrant violation of international law, including the UN Charter.” He said in a statement.
CNN’s Shawna Mizelle and Sam Fossum contributed to this report.