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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Cuba says its citizens were lured to fight in Russia’s war in Ukraine

A priest blessing conscripted men at a recruiting office in Moscow in 2022. The Russian government has taken a number of measures to bolster its military ranks.

By Valeria Safronova

Cuba’s government has begun criminal proceedings against a “human trafficking network” that recruited Cuban citizens to fight in Russia’s war with Ukraine, according to the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The ministry issued a statement Monday saying that Cuban authorities had begun dismantling the recruiting group for Russia. The statement said the network had intended to “incorporate Cuban citizens living there and even some living in Cuba” into the military to take part in operations in Ukraine.

The statement cited Cuba’s “firm and clear historical position against mercenarism” and said that it was “not part of the war in Ukraine.”

The statement did not say who was behind the trafficking network or how many people had been affected. The claims had not been independently verified, and Russian authorities did not immediately comment.

The Moscow Times reported that a social media account under the name of Elena Shuvalova had for months been posting ads in a Facebook group called “Cubans in Moscow” offering a one-year contract with the Russian army. On Tuesday, the group had nearly 76,000 members. The statement from the Cuban Foreign Ministry did not mention the group.

But Andrés Albuquerque, a Cuban political analyst in Miami, said that President Vladimir Putin of Russia would not recruit in Cuba without the consent of the country’s government and that it was “not possible” for the government not to know about the human-trafficking network.

“In Cuba, that does not exist,” Albuquerque said.

Cuba has been a close ally of Russia since the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The country’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, met with Putin during his official visit to Russia last November, and they have pledged to strengthen what they have called a “strategic partnership.” And when Álvaro López Miera, the head of Cuba’s Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, visited Moscow in June, he was received by his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, who said that Cuba was Russia’s “most important ally” in the Caribbean.

“Our Cuban friends confirmed their attitude toward our country, including demonstrating a full understanding of the reasons for the start of a special military operation in Ukraine,” Shoigu said at the time, according to reports from Tass, a Russian state media agency. There are direct flights between the countries, which have a mutual visa-free arrangement for 90 days out of 180. About 70,000 Russian tourists visited Cuba in the first half of 2023, according to Russian state media, and about 11,000 Cubans visited Russia in 2022, according to the Russian Association of Tour Operators.

It is not the first time that a country has claimed that its citizens were being recruited to fight for Russia in Ukraine. In late June, a prosecutor’s office in the Kostanay region of north Kazakhstan issued a statement saying that advertisements attempting to recruit people to “participate in the armed conflict in Ukraine” had been appearing on social media and elsewhere online.

The statement said that mercenary activities were prohibited by the Kazakh Constitution and that serving in military operations in a foreign country was a criminal offense.

Shoigu announced late last year that the ranks of the Russian army needed to be expanded from 1.15 million service members to 1.5 million, and U.S. officials have said that Russia has struggled to attract recruits.

The Russian government has taken a number of measures to bolster its military ranks, including making draft evasion more difficult and raising the maximum age of men required to complete military service from 27 to 30.

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