Cuba says its citizens were recruited to fight with Russia in Ukraine — but the government is only cracking down now ‘because they got caught,’ former counterintelligence officer says

A Cuban sailor walks past the Russian Navy training ship, Perekop, in Havana Bay, Cuba, Tuesday, July 11, 2023.

(AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

The Cuban government says it’s cracking down on efforts to recruit citizens to fight with Russia.Criminal proceedings have begun against a network blamed for recruiting mercenaries.But Cuba experts say it’s likely that Cuba, a longtime Kremlin ally, was involved in these efforts.

The Cuban government says it has begun legal proceedings against a group that recruited Cuban citizens to fight alongside Russia in Ukraine.

But the crackdown is likely just for show, Cuba experts say.

On Monday, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement it was working to dismantle a “human trafficking network” operating in Russia to recruit Cubans to fight in the war. The statement followed reports of several social media groups offering cash for Cubans willing to fight in Ukraine.

However, the idea that a group in Cuba “could be running a mercenary ring without the government’s knowledge is ludicrous,” Chris Simmons, a Cuban spycraft expert and former counterintelligence officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, told NPR.

“I think the easy, short explanation” for why the Cuban government issued a public statement condemning the mystery group “is because they got caught,” Simmons said in the interview. “This is just the latest in a long series of criminal enterprises run by the Cuban government. And any time they’ve gotten caught, historically, their first act is to deny it and then imprison some individuals as proof that they had no knowledge.”

Simmons pointed to the Cuban government’s history of involvement in civilian affairs. For example, about a million of its citizens work with the government in a neighborhood watch program called the Committees and Defense of the Revolution.

“It’s absolutely impossible for major criminal enterprises to exist without the Cuban government’s knowledge and involvement,” Simmons said, per NPR.

Though the statement from Cuba didn’t outright credit Russian leaders, hacked emails obtained by The Intercept link at least some efforts to a Russian officer in the Western Military District. The emails revealed more than 100 contracts promising 195,000 rubles, about $2,000 USD, for signing on to serve in Ukraine, plus monthly payments starting at about the same amount, per the Intercept.

Andrés Albuquerque, a Miami-based political analyst, said it’s also possible Russia worked alongside the Cuban government to recruit citizens. He told The New York Times that if Putin was behind the efforts, it’s unlikely the Cuban government was not involved: “In Cuba that does not exist,” Albuquerque told the Times.

The Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

The recruitment in Cuba — as well as similar efforts in June in Kazakhstan — comes as Russia faces a manpower crisis. British officials recently said Russia was struggling to recruit soldiers and that every week, about 100 Russian soldiers are convicted for going AWOL.

Cuba has decades-long ties with Russia. Their friendly relationship dates back to the Cuban revolution, after which communist leader Fidel Castro sided with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Cuba has also abstained from UN resolutions denouncing the war in Ukraine. Just this past June, Cuba’s Army Corps General Álvaro López Miera met with his Russian counterpart, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in Moscow. Shoigu shared a warm message following their visit.

“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, per the Russian state news agency Tass.

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