Sunday, July 14, 2024


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Cuban “soldiers for hire” enlist in Russia’s conflict with Ukraine in exchange for citizenship and improved living conditions.

César’s ultimate goal was to leave Cuba. Despite working as a bartender in Havana, he faced financial difficulties. Last year, he attempted to travel to Miami on a dilapidated boat but was unable to complete the journey as he was stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard.

He is currently organizing another plan to escape by taking a non-stop flight to Moscow. A Russian recruiter has covered the cost of his ticket, but it still comes with a significant cost. As a condition of the arrangement, he will be required to enlist in the Russian military and participate in combat in Ukraine.

“I will make this sacrifice for the betterment of my family,” stated César, who recently turned 19 and requested to keep his identity anonymous.

He expressed that even though he was a nuclear physicist, he could still face starvation in this place. He shared that his current income only allows him to purchase essential items such as toilet paper or milk. He expressed his desire to be given the opportunity to work as a paramedic.

Earlier this month, global news outlets reported on the presence of Cuban fighters in Ukraine following an announcement by Havana that it had arrested 17 individuals who were allegedly involved in a human trafficking operation. This operation was said to have recruited young men to fight for Russia.

The announcement prompted inquiries about the level of collaboration between the two former adversaries in the Cold War, and whether there were signs of weakening in Havana’s backing of Russia’s military action.

Conversations with Cubans in Cuba and Russia reveal a different side of the story: of desperate young men who see enlistment in the Russian army as their best shot at a better life — even if not all of them seem to know what they were getting themselves into.

A new member in his late 40s from Tula, Russia, who will be referred to as Pedro, stated that he was offered a position as a driver for “workers and construction material.” However, upon arriving in Russia, he was being trained for combat and given a weapon.

“I remember when I joined, he said we made a deal with the devil. And the devil doesn’t give out treats.”

Cold-war allies

In the past, Havana publicly declared its support for Moscow in the conflict with the “Yankee empire,” despite claiming to be neutral towards Ukraine. The Castro government relies on Russia for affordable fuel and assistance, but does not have much to offer in return other than its allegiance to them.

Since the Kremlin initiated its comprehensive attack last year, the nations have traded visits from high-ranking military officials.

Some experts have cautioned that Cuba may follow the Soviet tradition of sending troops to assist Moscow’s efforts. They cite a visit by Cuba’s military attaché to Belarus in May, where training of Cuban soldiers was a key topic, as well as a trip by Cuba’s defense minister to Moscow a few weeks later to discuss various military projects. However, there is no proof of any direct involvement at this time.

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After a video interview was released on YouTube in late August, where two 19-year-old individuals from Cuba shared their experience of being deceived and sent to Ukraine for construction work instead of the promised lucrative jobs in Russia, Havana took action to crack down on the recruitment network. The victims reported being physically abused, cheated out of their money, and held against their will.

The foreign ministry of Cuba has declared that they will take strong action to prevent any attempts to persuade Cubans to participate in Russia’s war efforts. They also stated that Cuba is not involved in the conflict in Ukraine.

Christopher Sabatini, a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, stated that the altered atmosphere in Havana indicates that the use of informal channels to recruit Cubans has caused a strong reaction.

“It was noted that Cuba and the Soviet Union were allies in conflicts such as Angola, driven by ideology. However, this relationship has now devolved into a purely self-interested and transactional nature, contradicting the decades of friendship between the two countries.”

In November 2022, the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, issued a decree that allows foreign individuals to expedite their process of becoming naturalized citizens if they join the military as contract soldiers. One of the recruits sent a message to this reporter stating, “We are all becoming Russian citizens.” According to sources interviewed by POLITICO, around 15 recruits, who had only been in Russia for a short period of time, were given their passports by the governor that week.

According to Pavel Luzin, a senior member of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), Russia is in need of soldiers following significant losses in Ukraine. Luzin noted that the majority of foreign recruits are from Central Asian and African nations, as well as Syria and Afghanistan.

The precise number of foreign individuals who have joined Russia’s forces is not certain. However, Luzin believes that their small presence primarily helps to reinforce Russia’s narrative of having global backing for its conflict.

“He stated that not having the ability to communicate in the language, familiarity with the area, or proper training for contemporary warfare would result in swift death.”

Joining the 106th

Many Cubans interviewed by POLITICO stated that they first became involved with the Russian military in late 2022, after someone using the alias Elena Shuvalova started posting on social media pages aimed at Cubans seeking to leave the country or already living in Russia.

A recent post featured an image of a woman wearing a long skirt posing in front of a car adorned with a Cuban flag and a “Z,” which is Russia’s symbol for pro-war sentiment. The caption by Shuvalova included an offer for a one-year contract with the Russian military, assistance with necessary language exams and medical examinations, and the promise of rapid legalization within two days.

The compensation included a single payment of 195,000 rubles (equivalent to $2,000) and a monthly salary of 204,000 rubles ($2,100). In contrast, the average annual GDP per capita in Cuba in 2020 was $9,500.

Out of the four individuals currently in Russia who spoke to POLITICO, three revealed that they had been transported from Cuba earlier this year. In their home country, they held jobs in the fields of hospitality, teaching, and construction. One individual had prior experience in the military, while the other two had fulfilled the mandatory two-year military service requirement.

Although they were aware they would be working for the Russian military, they were comforted by the fact that their duties would involve tasks such as driving or construction, far away from the front lines. “They’ll be digging trenches or assisting with city reconstruction,” one recruit’s frustrated spouse informed POLITICO.

In order to avoid potential legal repercussions for speaking with a reporter, POLITICO altered the names of the individuals mentioned in this story to protect them from being charged with joining a mercenary group in Cuba or committing treason or espionage in Russia.

All of them claimed to have been brought in from Varadero, along with many other men. They stated that their passports were not stamped when they left, and that when they arrived in Russia, their migration cards were labeled as “tourism” for their reason for visiting.

Upon arrival at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow, the new members were greeted by a woman named Diana who claimed to be a Cuban with connections to Russia. They were then transported by bus to an abandoned school building located near the city of Ryazan, which is approximately 200 kilometers southeast of Moscow.

At that location, the recruits underwent a brief medical examination and were required to go through a lot of bureaucratic procedures, such as signing a contract with the Russian defense ministry. One of the recruits mentioned that there was a Spanish version of the document for those who asked for it, while others stated that a translator briefly explained its contents orally.

The new soldiers reported that a portion of the recent additions stayed behind at a military base in Ryazan. However, the majority were relocated to the 106th Guards Airborne division, stationed in Tula and involved in intense combat in Ukraine.

Kyiv claims the 106th
During the initial stages of the invasion, a significant portion of the invading force was used for fertilizer purposes when attempting to seize Kyiv. In recent times, it has been positioned near Soledar and Bakhmut, both areas of conflict in eastern Ukraine.

“When we were given the uniform and instructed to begin training, I realized that this was not related to construction,” one recruit stated. However, he was already committed at that point.

A legal adviser who is well-known within Russia’s Cuban community told POLITICO he has delivered the same tough message to scores of Cuban recruits who have appealed to him for help: “Once you’ve signed the contract, defecting is tantamount to treason.” 

When interviewed in Tula, Pedro expressed feeling trapped by his decision.

He tearfully stated, “My reason for coming here was to provide my children with a better future, not to take lives. I will not shoot a single round.”

He mentioned contemplating attempting to flee. “But to where?”

Upon arrival at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow, the new enlistees were greeted by a woman named Diana. She identified herself as a Cuban with connections to Russia. | Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

Willing participants

POLITICO could not determine whether Shuvalova or Diana were working for Russian or Cuban authorities. Neither woman responded to requests for comment — though Shuvalova told journalists at the Russian-language Moscow Times that she worked pro-bono.

Despite numerous inquiries, the Cuban Embassy in Moscow did not provide a response. However, the government has expressed conflicting views. Following the announcement of the dismantling of the human trafficking operation, the ambassador of Cuba in Moscow stated to the state-run RIA agency that they do not oppose Cubans who wish to enter into a contract and participate in the operation lawfully.

The defense ministry of Russia did not provide a response to a comment request.

It is difficult to determine the exact number of Cuban individuals who have joined the Russian military.

During discussions with POLITICO, the individuals stated that approximately 140 Cubans are currently located in Tula. Additionally, a person who called into a Miami-based Spanish-language TV channel in early September claimed to have around 90 Cubans under their leadership in Ryazan.

A collection of 198 compromised files, supposedly belonging to newly recruited Cubans, was revealed on the Ukrainian website Informnapalm. These documents disclosed the age range of individuals joining the Russian army, spanning from 19 to 69 years old. Additionally, over 50 passports were issued in June and July of this year.

Some of the Cubans interviewed by POLITICO claimed they were not deceived into participating in the war. A number of them can be seen in photos circulating on social media and messaging platforms, proudly showing off their military attire and some even holding weapons.

“No one put a gun to their heads,” Yoenni Vega Gonzalez, 36, a Cuban migrant in Russia, said of his acquaintances in Ukraine. “The contract makes it clear that you’re going to war, not to play ball or camping.”

He claimed that he was denied the chance to join due to not being able to speak Russian. Otherwise, he would have proudly gone to the front with his head held high.

While writing this article, multiple Cubans currently residing on the island expressed their desire to join. Each individual cited economic factors, rather than political ones, as their primary motivation.

The experiences of everyday life within the boundaries of the training facilities varied significantly.

Several new members reported their encounters with the Russians as amicable and the ambiance as laid-back. During their leisure time, they indulged in smoking cigarettes and drinking Coca-Cola (which was not officially sold in Cuba or Russia). On weekends, they toured the city and enjoyed the nightlife at its bars.

However, individuals who claim they were deceived into serving, which appears to be a small group, express dissatisfaction with payment delays and report being threatened with imprisonment for defying orders.

When questioned about the ethical ramifications of his choice, one enlistee in Tula stated it was not his main priority.

He explained, “We have discovered a way to escape Cuba. Our intention is not to harm anyone, but we also do not wish to put ourselves in danger.”