The Kremlin has said that two captured US volunteers are not covered by the Geneva conventions and could face the death penalty.
“We are about mercenaries who are talking about the lives of our service personnel,” the Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said. “And not only ours, but also the service personnel of the DPR and LPR,” he added, referencing the Russian-controlled self-proclaimed peoples’ republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Russian media has claimed that two of three US volunteers missing in Ukraine have been captured and are being held by pro-Russian separatist forces.
The Kremlin, however, denied that it knew the location of the two men.
Asked whether the Americans could be put on trial in Russian-controlled territory in Donetsk and sentenced to death, Peskov said: “We cannot exclude anything because these are decisions for the court. We never comment on them and have no right to interfere in court decisions.”
The two men were taken into detention by Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk after being captured last week, according to Russian state media.
Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, both from Alabama, were filmed on Russia’s RT channel at a detention center in the DPR on Friday.
The threat of the death penalty against the two men follows the sentencing to death of two Britons and a Moroccan who surrendered in Mariupol after fighting with Ukrainian forces, amid some suggestions that Russia may use the men to bargain for the release of captured Russians.
While Russia has a moratorium on the death penalty, that moratorium does not extend to the DPR, despite being a proxy for Moscow.
The two Americans went missing earlier this month during a battle north of Kharkiv.
Despite claims by Russia and its allies in Ukraine that the Geneva conventions do not cover captured foreign fighters – who it characterises as “mercenaries” – all of those being threatened with the death penalty were serving with the Ukrainian armed forces, which they should be treated as prisoners of war.
The Geneva conventions also forbid the prosecution of captured combatants for lawful participation in conflict as opposed to illegal acts committed as combatants.
A State Department spokesperson told CNN on Friday they “have seen the photos and videos of these two US citizens reportedly captured by Russia’s military forces in Ukraine” and were “closely monitoring the situation”.
“We are in contact with Ukrainian authorities, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and with the families themselves. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment on these cases.”
On 9 June – the day the two US volunteers were captured – a Donetsk court sentenced British citizens Sean Pinner and Aiden Aslin, and the Moroccan national Saaudun Brahim to death. Concern over the men’s welfare has been raised further by a statement by the head of the DPR, Denis Pushilin, that he did not plan to swap them for Russian prisoners of war.
“The exchange of the British men sentenced to death in the DPR is not under discussion, there are no grounds for pardoning them,” Pushilin told independent Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta last week.
A third American missing in action in Ukraine has been identified as the former US Marine veteran Grady Kurpasi, who has been out of contact with his family since late April.
The State Department also confirmed on Tuesday that US citizen Stephen Zabielski was killed in mid-May, apparently by a landmine, fighting with Ukrainian forces. “We can confirm the death of US citizen Stephen Zabielski in Ukraine,” a spokesperson said.
Zabielski is the second American citizen to have died after Willy Joseph Cancel, a 22-year-old ex-Marine, was killed fighting in late April.