Russian proxies in occupied Ukraine made a British captive belt out the Russian national anthem just hours after one of his fellow prisoner was confirmed dead Friday.
The Russian propaganda machine was quick to jolt into action after the death of Paul Urey, a British aid worker the Russian-backed authorities had accused of being a “professional military man” tasked with recruiting and training “mercenaries,” claims for which they have presented no evidence.
The agency tasked with upholding “human rights” in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic claimed Urey, who they say died on July 10, succumbed to “chronic illnesses” and “stress”—and that he passed away in distress “due to the indifference of his homeland to his fate.”
The claim, part of an effort by Russian-backed leadership in the banana republic to vilify Western nations for refusing to recognize them, comes as concerns for other foreign captives snatched up by Russian forces grow.
According to family members of Alexander Drueke and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, two U.S. vets who were serving as volunteers in the Ukrainian military when they were taken prisoner in the Kharkiv region in early June, no one appears to have been allowed to visit them in captivity for a wellness check.
The family of Huynh said that while Drueke has been allowed to contact his loved ones several times by phone, Huynh has not been heard from since he was taken captive more than a month ago.
“That’s a concern to us,” Darla Black, the mother of Huynh’s fiance, Joy, told The Daily Beast. “They’re really not telling us exactly where the guys are,” she said, adding that “the Red Cross has not yet been allowed in to see Andy and Alex.”
A third U.S. captive, Suedi Murekezi, is reportedly being held in the same penal colony as Drueke and Huynh. Murekezi had no involvement in any fighting and was grabbed up in the Kherson region while in search of gas for his car, friends and family told The Guardian.
While Drueke and Huynh’s whereabouts are secret, a select few have been granted access: Kremlin propagandists, Russian-appointed lawyers—and a former American cop who fled to Russia and soon began cozying up to Putin’s propaganda machine.
While John Mark Dougan, a.k.a. “BadVolf,” has billed himself as a whistleblower fighting corruption in the U.S. justice system. He has more recently made a name for himself as a conspiracy theorist and Kremlin shill, echoing some of Moscow’s most far-fetched claims about the war, including that a U.S.-Ukraine bioweapons conspiracy is at the heart of it all.
But Dougan’s latest claim to fame is as the so-called “POW Whisperer,” as he puts it on his YouTube channel. In this new role, he is an independent American journalist asking the foreign prisoners in Donetsk to open up about their time in Ukraine.
In the interviews—all of which come across as polite and cordial, in contrast to some of the disturbing interviews conducted by Dougan’s fellow Western propagandists—Dougan subtly invites the prisoners to incriminate themselves with the Russian proxy leadership who claim they are “mercenaries,” despite the fact that they all fought as formal members of Ukraine’s military.
For instance, in a recent telephone interview with Aiden Aslin that Dougan described as voluntary, Dougan asked, “I’m just curious, did your mortar unit hit any targets in Donbas before the invasion started?” before correcting himself to say he meant the “Russian special operation.”
In another recent phone interview with Alexander Drueke, Dougan asked directly, “Did you engage in any fighting?”
He went on to suggest the 39-year-old captive should “publicly petition” American authorities to have him released in exchange for Julian Assange, who could then begin his new life in Donetsk or Moscow (way to let the cat out of the bag!).
“Are the people who hold them capable of unlawfully killing others? Definitely yes.”
Dougan has stressed that all of the interviews are voluntary. When asked at the onset of the interview to confirm that he had reached out to Dougan of his own accord, Drueke said yes, before adding: “My defender here in the DPR allowed me to use this phone and provided me your number so that we can do an interview.”
In comments to The Daily Beast via Vkontakte, Dougan said the interview with Drueke was not his idea and that Drueke had asked to do the interview even though Dougan “didn’t know who he was.”
He said he was currently in Donetsk and “will be meeting with him in-person.”
But when asked for the name of Drueke’s lawyer referenced in the interview, or the penal colony where he was being held, Dougan responded: “As far as the lawyer’s name or where he’s being held, I can’t give you that information without permission.”
Asked whether he had heard anything about Andy Huynh, who has been noticeably absent from recent interviews, Dougan avoided answering directly, saying only that he doesn’t “know much about their cases.”
Drueke and Huynh’s faces and apparently scripted comments have routinely been broadcast in interviews on Russian state television and circulated on pro-Russian social media channels, where their capture is touted as proof of Russian military prowess, Western evil, and Ukrainian incompetence—all the key points of the Kremlin’s deranged propaganda campaign.
“Alex and Andy both have slipped some things into these ‘interviews,’” Dianna Shaw, Drueke’s aunt and a spokesperson for the family, told The Daily Beast. “And one of the things that Andy slipped into one of them was that they’ve been moved. That they were captured and taken somewhere and then moved to this detention center.”
Drueke and Huynh were not captured within the territory of the DPR. They were snatched north of Kharkiv in an area swarming with Russian troops at the time. Despite that, the Kremlin has repeatedly feigned helplessness in the men’s captivity and claimed to have no control over proceedings in the DPR, while in the same breath encouraging the use of the death penalty against them.
“That was interesting to us, is that in one of the interviews… Andy actually said ‘we were taken across the border to Russia to the first prison camp,’ and I was really surprised that they let that out,” Black said. “I don’t think the Russians have ever actually given confirmation of that, but we have always suspected that they had been taken prisoner, gone to Russia, and then how did they end up in the hands of the separatists?”
The implications of such a transfer are “not a good sign,” said Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, who noted that Russian authorities handing the prisoners over would’ve known there are fewer legal protections—and the death penalty—in the unrecognized republic.
“My belief and my hope is that execution isn’t the purpose of this and they really are hostages or bargaining chips,” he said.
But he cautioned against interpreting the men’s detention as a simple ploy.
“Are the people who hold them capable of unlawfully killing others? Definitely yes.”
The Russian proxy leaders have responded to Western leaders’ refusal to negotiate with them by raising the stakes dramatically in the last week.
Denis Pushilin, the leader of the self-proclaimed DPR, made a show of hyping up the death penalty for captives from Morocco and the United Kingdom, the first foreign volunteers to be tried and sentenced to death since the start of Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion.
U.K. captives Aiden Aslin and Shaun Pinner, and Moroccan national Brahim Saadoun, were sentenced to death by firing squad after a rushed show trial in June.
Although they were told they had the right to an appeal, which all three subsequently filed, Pushilin signaled this week that no one in charge of the DPR was taking those appeals very seriously. In comments to Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Solovyov, Pushilin said authorities had already “prepared” a site for the execution to be carried out. (The Justice Ministry of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic did not respond to questions from The Daily Beast about Pushilin’s announcement.)
A spokesperson for the U.K. Foreign Office told The Daily Beast “we are doing everything we can to support the men and are in close contact with and helping their families.” On the American side, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said authorities had “been in contact with the Ukrainian and Russian authorities regarding U.S. citizens who may have been captured by Russia’s forces or proxies while fighting in Ukraine. We call on Russia to live up to its international obligations to treat all individuals captured fighting with Ukraine’s armed forces as prisoners of war.”
Both the U.S. and U.K. have stressed that they do not recognize the Donetsk People’s Republic or the Luhansk People’s Republic, and would not negotiate with them to secure the captives’ release.
The Kremlin has used that to push the narrative that the prisoners’ own governments have abandoned them for refusing to negotiate with the leaders of the republic, which can boast of international recognition only by Russia, Syria, and North Korea, while the rest of the world considers it part of Ukraine.
Ultimately, according to Krivosheev, such “convoluted Russian logic” and claims of “plausible deniability” will not protect them from war crimes charges. “Russia is responsible. They are prisoners of war, full stop,” he said, adding that any “execution” would actually be considered state-sanctioned “killing” and a “declaration by Russia of its intent to kill prisoners of war.”
“It is important to report the truth, including that Russia is responsible for the actions of the anti-Ukrainian forces in the Donbas. The test in international law is effective control. Russia is plainly exercising such control. There is no ‘plausible deniability’ here,” said Mary Ellen O’Connell of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
The families of the prisoners have been contending not only with the uncertainty of knowing whether their loved ones are truly safe, but in some cases, harassment by supposed journalists.
“He couldn’t stand to see the suffering.”
Shaw, Drueke’s aunt, recalled that his mother had been contacted by a man “posing as an independent journalist.”
“And he was texting, ‘I’ve seen your son. Don’t you want to know how he looks? I’ve talked to your son, don’t you want to know what he said?’” she said.
The families of both Drueke and Huynh say they are blocking out such noise and are solely focused on securing the release of their loved ones.
And for Black, “it goes even beyond Alex and Andy.”
“I think people need to understand that the atrocities that are being committed in Ukraine right now… And the threatened atrocities against Andy and Alex… it threatens the world,” she said, adding that while Huynh has been portrayed as a money-hungry mercenary, in reality, he “used his life savings” to travel to Ukraine with humanitarian supplies, offering to help however he could.
“He couldn’t stand to see the suffering,” she said. “Eventually, in one way or another, it’s going to affect the world. And Andy and Alex are two of the guys who saw that and said, ‘OK, it needs to stop here.’”
According to the families of Drueke and Huynh, the Russian proxies in Donetsk appear to be closely monitoring the reaction in the West to the tightly-controlled videos that serve as a public proof of life for the captives.
“I think it was [Alex’s] third call, where he started the call saying, ‘I have information for you but first they want to know what’s taking so long with any negotiations’… and then he said, ‘Second, they want you to tell CNN to issue a retraction that we are not speaking under duress in those videos or this phone call,’” Shaw said.
That they are paying such close attention to how they are portrayed may be seen as a sign they are still hopeful for international recognition, a move that would be a double win for Russia as it would humiliate the West while also pitting it against Ukraine.
Sergei Kostiaev, Research Analyst at Georgetown University in Qatar, told The Daily Beast he believes that “in the end, there will be a prisoner exchange” for the U.S. captives, since there are Russians in American prisons like arms dealer Viktor Bout.
“It could be politically difficult for Biden, though,” he said.
Russia’s endgame with the other captives remains a mystery. But it was clear Friday they still wanted the condemned prisoners front and center on the global stage as Aslin, one of the captives condemned to death, was apparently trotted out for an in-person interview with Dougan.
A video of the encounter was quickly circulated by a reporter for Russian state-run RT and spread like wildfire on pro-Kremlin Telegram channels. The nearly two-and-a-half-minute clip showed Aslin singing the anthem in its entirety, the camera at times zooming in on his face for special effect.
Standing right next to him was Dougan, who, once the “performance” was over, applauded and said, “I got goosebumps man.”