Cuba says human traffickers luring citizens to Russia’s war on Ukraine

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The Cuban government says it’s discovered a Russian human trafficking network that has been recruiting its citizens to fight for Vladimir Putin’s government in Ukraine — and it’s warning they’d better cut it out.

The claim by the Cuban Foreign Ministry appeared to reflect unusual tensions with Russia, a historical ally. Putin’s government has sought to strengthen ties with the Communist-ruled Caribbean island to offset Russia’s isolation following its invasion of Ukraine last year.

Cuba is working to “neutralize and dismantle a human trafficking organization” based in Russia that was targeting Cubans living there as well as in their homeland, the ministry said in a statement, and has begun criminal proceedings against those involved. Cuban law forbids its citizens to work as mercenaries abroad.

The statement, which was tweeted Monday by Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, did not offer details. But it was issued after the Miami-based Spanish-language network Telemundo broadcast a report about two 19-year-old Cubans who said they had been offered construction jobs in Russia, only to be sent to a Russian military unit in Ukraine.

One of the pair, Alex Vega, said they were each offered $2,200 and Russian citizenship to clear rubble and rebuild cities destroyed by war. “Given the situation in Cuba, we didn’t think twice,” he said. Cuba’s economy has been crippled by the coronavirus pandemic, lackluster tourism, U.S. punitive action and inefficient policies. Inflation could hit 40 percent this year, the government has said.

Upon arriving in Russia on July 7, the two men were issued weapons and military uniforms and sent to Luhansk, a Russian-occupied city in eastern Ukraine, Vega told Telemundo.

In Cuba, a frantic search for milk

Russia has been struggling to shore up its army for a war that has turned out to be far more challenging than Moscow’s planners anticipated. Putin last fall announced the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of reservists — pushing many young Russian men to flee or hide.

The Cuban foreign ministry didn’t specify whether the Russian government was behind the recruiting network, or whether it was run by an organization such as the Wagner Group, which has deployed tens of thousands of mercenaries, many of them recruited from Russian prisons, to Ukraine.

“I’d guess there is some connection to the Wagner Group or some other mercenary group,” rather than the Putin administration itself, said William LeoGrande, a Cuba scholar at American University. “But it’s hard to imagine the Russian government wouldn’t be aware of it.”

Russian authorities did not respond to a request for comment.

The Cuban comments appeared to reflect sincere concern in Havana about the network, LeoGrande said. “Because of the sensitivity of the relationship with Russia, they would not have issued a statement like this unless they were sure it was a real thing,” he said.

Scott Hamilton, a retired U.S. diplomat, said Cuba was especially alarmed about being associated with mercenaries, since its government had consistently used that term to describe American-funded individuals accused of carrying out attacks on the island. The Cuban government has pressed the United Nations to pass measures barring countries from allowing mercenaries to operate in their territories.

“They don’t want to damage their broader political narrative about mercenaries, by getting sidetracked on this Russia-Ukraine thing,” said Hamilton, who served in Havana from 2015 to 2017.

The Cuban foreign ministry said the country “has a firm and clear historical position against mercenarism.”

Cuba’s enemies are “promoting distorted information that seeks to tarnish the country’s image and present it as an accomplice to these actions, which we categorically reject,” the ministry said. It did not elaborate, and Cuban authorities did not respond to a request for more information.

Both Russia and Ukraine keep their casualty numbers a secret, but a leaked U.S. intelligence assessment from February that surfaced online said U.S. officials believed with “low confidence” that between 35,000 and 42,500 Russian soldiers had been killed by then, and at least 150,500 wounded. Ukraine’s estimated dead were about half that number, with around 110,000 injured.

In December, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said he expected the Russian military to grow by 30 percent, to 1.5 million service members, including up to nearly 700,000 contract soldiers.

In May, a Russian newspaper from the city of Ryazan reported that “several” Cuban citizens had volunteered as contract soldiers in the Russian army, and some hoped to become Russian citizens in exchange for their service.

“Cuba is not part of the war in Ukraine,” the ministry said. “It is acting, and it will firmly act against those who within the national territory participate in any form of human trafficking for mercenarism or recruitment purposes so that Cuban citizens may raise weapons against any country.”

Cuba has benefited from Russian aid, but has tread a careful line on Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. The Cuban government has abstained on U.N. resolutions calling on Russia to withdraw, rather than voting against them. “The government doesn’t want to see itself involved in any kind of military activities of the Russian government,” said Carlos Alzugaray, a retired Cuban diplomat.

The Wagner Group threw Russia’s military leadership into disarray earlier this summer, withdrawing from the battlefield and staging a short-lived mutiny against the Kremlin. The situation only added to Russia’s conscription struggles.

Karen DeYoung in Washington, Natalya Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, and Ana Vanessa Herrero in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.

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