Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, the Ukrainian government was promoting their own foreign legion (formally the International Legion of Ukraine) as a way for volunteers from other countries to help defend Ukraine without those nations officially sending in troops. According to Kyiv, more than 20,000 people from 52 countries rapidly answered the call, and that included some Americans. Two of those Americans, Alexander Drueke and Andy Huynh, went missing last week according to their families. It has now been revealed that they were taken prisoner in the Donbas region. One of Vladimir Putin’s spokesmen talked to NBC News yesterday and was asked if the two men might face the death penalty if they are put on trial. Dmitry Peskov said that he couldn’t rule it out, particularly after three British and Moroccan fighters in a similar situation were given the death penalty a couple of weeks ago. If there wasn’t already enough tension between Moscow and Washington, this should turn the flames up even further.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman would not guarantee that two American military veterans captured in Ukraine won’t face the death penalty in an exclusive interview with NBC News on Monday.

“It depends on the investigation,” Dmitry Peskov told senior international correspondent Keir Simmons when asked whether Alexander Drueke and Andy Huynh would “face the same fate” as two British citizens and a Moroccan who were sentenced to death by Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine earlier this month.

The families of Drueke, 39, and Huynh, 27, reported them missing last week.

Peskov’s accusations are a bit dubious at best. He’s accusing the American fighters of vague “illegal activities” including endangering the lives of Russian soldiers by “firing at them.”

Really? You do realize that the men were on the battlefield in the middle of a war. (A war that your country started, not to put too fine of a point on this.) Soldiers on the battlefield tend to fire at one another. That’s sort of how wars work.

If Drueke and Huynh were being accused of war crimes and there was some sort of evidence to back that up, then there might be a basis for having this conversation. But nothing like that has even been suggested. If all they were doing was engaging the enemy alongside the Ukrainian forces, they should be considered nothing other than standard prisoners of war right now. And the Russians would probably receive a fairly sweet offer if they wanted to put them up for a prisoner swap.

But executing them would be another matter entirely. Unfortunately, this isn’t a situation where the United States could immediately declare such executions as any sort of casus belli. Those two men were not in the country as any sort of official representatives of the United States government or our military. They were serving as volunteers in the service of a foreign power. They knew they were heading into harm’s way. It would really be no different than when an American journalist is killed or injured while covering a war. And given the nature of the foreign legion, it’s not even entirely clear if they are covered by the Geneva Conventions.

This is quickly turning into a diplomatic flamethrower. If any Americans volunteering with the foreign legion are killed in battle, that’s tragic, but bad things happen in war. Being imprisoned and executed is another matter entirely. If the Russians are looking for a way to enflame the American public to the point where they goad Joe Biden into going to war against Russia, that would probably be a pretty good starting point.

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