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Russia can't guarantee that American vets captured in Ukraine won’t face the death penalty

“It depends on the investigation,” President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told NBC News when asked about Alexander Drueke and Andy Huynh.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman wouldn’t guarantee that two U.S. military veterans captured in Ukraine won’t face the death penalty in an exclusive interview Monday.

“It depends on the investigation,” Dmitry Peskov told NBC News senior international correspondent Keir Simmons when he was 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 this month.

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

The White House views the comments as "appalling" and "alarming," said John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications. He said U.S. officials are still seeking more information about the detained Americans and are in touch with their families.

“It is equally alarming whether they actually mean what they’re saying here, and that this could be an outcome — that they could levy a death penalty against two Americans that were fighting in Ukraine — or that they just feel it’s a responsible thing for a major power to talk about doing this as a way of signaling to the president of the United States and the American people," Kirby said at a press briefing. "Either one of them is equally alarming. And that's why, again, we find it appalling."

Simmons interviewed Peskov in Moscow, where the government is cracking down on journalists and limiting what reporters can say under threat of imprisonment. 

Peskov said Drueke and Huynh were “involved in illegal activities” in Ukraine, firing on Russian troops.

“Those guys on the battlefield were firing at our military guys. They were endangering their lives,” he said. 

“There will be a court, and there will be a court decision,” Peskov said.

“They should be punished,” he added, calling Drueke and Huynh “soldiers of fortune.”

The Ukrainian government said in early March that 20,000 people from 52 countries volunteered to fight with the International Legion of Ukraine after the government put out a call for foreigners to join its fight against Russia. It isn’t known how many are in the country now.

Damien Magrou, a spokesman for the foreign legion, said he couldn’t “confirm or deny” whether Drueke and Huynh were with the force.

Peskov also didn’t say whether the men were being held in Russia or by pro-Russian forces fighting the Ukrainians in the east of the country. He added that they weren’t likely to be covered by Geneva Conventions that afford protections to prisoners of war because they weren’t part of Ukraine’s regular army. 

Drueke’s mother said in an interview last week that her son wasn’t in Ukraine to fight and that he was there in more of an advisory capacity, while Huynh’s fiancée said they had talked about his going to fight before they got engaged in late March. 

On Friday, videos of Huynh and Drueke were broadcast by RT, a Russian state-controlled international television network, which reported that the two were being held captive by separatists. 

Peskov, who spoke with NBC News as Russia made gains in Ukraine’s east, said he had no information about Grady Kurpasi, the third former U.S. service member who has also been reported missing in Ukraine by his family.  

Peskov also denied that American WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was detained at a Russian airport in February after authorities there said she was carrying vape cartridges containing hashish oil, was being held as a “hostage.” 

He repeated the Kremlin’s claim that aggressive Western sanctions are having little effect on the Russian economy as Moscow refocuses on replacing restricted imports with domestic production. 

He also reiterated that NATO and the U.S. left Russia with “no choice” but to launch its operation in Ukraine after its security concerns about the military bloc’s perceived encroachment on its borders weren’t heard.