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Zelenskyy pledges to fight for return of Americans captured by Russia to their families

The Kremlin has refused to rule out the death penalty for U.S. military veterans Alexander Drueke and Andy Huynh, who were reported missing in eastern Ukraine last week.

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has vowed to fight for the release of two American military veterans captured in Ukraine, telling NBC News on Friday the men were “heroes.”

Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27, were reported missing last week while fighting in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin has not confirmed where the men are being held but has refused to rule out the death penalty.

“What can I say? They are heroes, and for me they are the same like Ukrainians because they give the main things they had: their lives,” Zelenskyy said in an interview as part of the Aspen Ideas Festival, of which NBCUniversal News Group is the media partner.

Zelenskyy was not suggesting the men have been killed.

“I’m sure we’ll fight for them and get them back, and of course they will come back to their families,” he said in the interview, the full version of which will air at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Tuesday.

He added, “To me, it is a great honor that in the world there are some soldiers that are not afraid, and they came to support us and our sovereignty and independence.”

Earlier this week, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said in an interview that he could not rule out the American veterans getting the same treatment as two British citizens and a Moroccan, who were sentenced to death by Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine this month.

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.

Zelenskyy has gone from being the president of an eastern European country to a world leader whose words resonate globally.

His leadership style is lauded as one of the reasons for Ukraine’s early successes against the Russian war machine, putting iron in the spine of front-line troops who were able to push back the Kremlin’s initially botched invasion.

On Thursday the Ukrainian president touted a political victory as European Union leaders approved his country’s official status as a candidate to join the bloc.

Zelenskyy called it  “a unique and historic moment” and said that “Ukraine’s future is in the E.U.”

But in recent weeks, Russia has had far more success focusing its military efforts on eastern Ukraine, where it has gained ground and subjected Ukraine to heavy losses in the fight for the Donbas.

Richard Engel reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Alexander Smith reported from London.