Cuban soldiers in the Russian army in the war against Ukraine. Photo: Taken from the Internet.
Cuban Mercenaries in Russia’s War in Ukraine
8 / septiembre / 2023
On September 4, 2023, the Ministry of Foreign Relations (MINREX) published a statement in which the authorities assured they were working to “neutralize and dismantle the human trafficking ring that is operating from Russia to enlist Cuban citizens living there, and even some coming from Cuba, into the Russian military forces that are fighting in war operations in Ukraine.”
The statement was made after accounts from Alex Vegas Diaz and Andorf Velazquez Garcia went viral on social media. The two young Cubans are allegedly in an alarming situation after being “scammed” and sent to Russia as recruits to fight in the war in Ukraine.
The journey began when Alex and Andorf answered Facebook users identifying as Elena and Dayana, who were apparently offering them a work contract in Russia. They were promised jobs in construction, repairing homes damaged by the war in Ukraine. However, it was all “a scam”, the young men said.
The names of these alleged recruiters match two profiles (Shuvalova Elena and Dayana David Diaz) who have posted ads in Facebook groups for Cubans in Russia. In these posts, they offer a wage of 204,000 Rubles and promise a Russian passport for men who go to fight and for some of their family members.
Dayana David Diaz also shared recruitment posts in groups of Colombians and Venezuelans in Russia.
El Toque wrote to Dayana David Diaz and Shuvalova Elena, but hasn’t received a response up until now. Our team hasn’t had access to the contract these young men signed.
Nevertheless, according to the El español publication, recruits commit themselves to staying in the army by signing this contract. If they break the contract, they could receive a sentence of up to 15 years in prison, as they’d be considered defectors (as if they were Russian citizens).
Accounts from these young men describe how they were received by a soldier of Cuban origin when they arrived in Russia, were stripped of their passports and documents and allegedly sent to Ukraine. They got sick in the process and were returned to Russia, although they have said they still have friends on the front line.
“Friends of ours are on the front line. Nobody said anything about that,” they explained. “Lots of Cubans have gone missing, nobody knows anything about them and it’s all a scam.”
In Russia, the young men were subjected to medical exams and other tests in a school supposedly, before being sent to the hospital. According to their statements to América Tevé on September 1, 2023, they were beaten by Russian soldiers who accused them of being US spies.
One of the mothers of these young men explained to América Tevé that her son’s contract included promises of a wage, economic benefits, getting a Russian passport and citizenship, as well as the opportunity to take their parents, wife and children to Russia.
Family members have asked for help to get the young men back to Cuba safely, as they fear for their lives. The situation is especially critical because one of the young men has rheumatoid arthritis and the other only has one kidney.
El Toque contacted the partner of one Cuban who emigrated to Russia to join the army. The person, still living on the island and who prefers to remain anonymous, says that her partner isn’t fighting, but that the contract he signed stipulated compensation to the family in the case of his death. “It’s a war contract,” she said.
This Cuban’s experience coincides with Andorf and Alex’s story to some extent. They were given the contract without a translation and had to translate it by their own means. They also have the right to holidays after six months and regularizing their migrant status (as some of the ads posted on Facebook by Shuvalova Elena and Dayana David say).
El Toque’s team was able to access Russian Army recruitment websites in St. Petersburg. These websites have salaries that match those in ads on social media and the young men’s accounts. In addition to offering a salary range for every job position, the Russian Army announces “bonuses” for military merits (such as capturing a Leopard tank or a HIMARS rocket launcher).
Requirements to join the Russian Army are: being 18-65 years old, CV, educational documents, marriage certificate and birth certificate of children, military ID (when applicable) and passport. Foreign mercenaries need to also present an application to carry out military service under contract at the selection place. Contracts can be one-year, three years, or five years long.
Meanwhile, these websites also explain the compensation soldiers will receive in the case they’re injured in combat. From financial aid for the injured person, payments depending on the degree of disability, handouts to families and compensation of up to 5 million Rubles (almost 47,000 Euros) in the case of death.
The Cuban Government and human trafficking
This isn’t the first time that the Cuban Government is issuing an official statement after complaints appeared and went viral on social media. MINREX’s statement takes a stand against human trafficking and mercenaries, but it doesn’t mention Andorf and Alex’s story, for example.
Cuban authorities haven’t yet given any information about how they’re going to help possible victims or how they’re going to work with the Russian Government to dismantle this ring.
MINREX’s brief statement casts many doubts. Why wasn’t this situation picked up on before, bearing in mind the bilateral relationship between both countries? How did authorities have no idea about a scheme that involved formal service contracts, including life insurance policies? What measures will Cuban Government representatives in Russia take, including the Embassy’s military attaché Colonel Monica Milian Gomez (who has facilitated agreements to train Cuban soldiers in Belarus), given accusations of Cuban soldiers’ complicity in the recruitment process made by Andorf and Alex?
The Cuban Penal Code has harsh sentences for mercenaries. According to Article 135.1, “whoever, in order to obtain the payment of a wage or any other kind of personal compensation, enters in the military units totally or partially formed by individuals who are not citizens of the State in whose territory they will fight, shall be subject to a punishment of ten to thirty years in prison, life imprisonment or death.
“Whosoever collaborates or executes any other act in order to directly or indirectly achieve the objective stated in the preceding paragraph shall be subject to the same punishment as above,” stipulates Article 135.2 of the Code.
According to the UN, a mercenary is a “soldier for hire”. Protocol I added to the Geneva Conventions, concerning the protection of civilian victims of international war (1977), adds that these fighters aren’t citizens of either party in the conflict, nor do they live in the area controlled by the other side.
The war in Ukraine: Why is Russia turning to Cuba?
An option appeared amidst the war in Ukraine in recent months, that captured the world’s attention as well as that of young Cubans. Given the need to reinforce its dwindling armed forces on the front line, Russia began an unconventional recruitment process: offering fast-track citizenship to foreigners who joined its ranks.
According to Ryazan Vedomosti newspaper, in late May 2023, a contingent of Cuban citizens were solemnly escorted to the army, especially to the region known as the “special military operations zone” (a term the Kremlin uses to talk about its intervention in Ukraine). Major Dmitry Zaitsev, head of Recruitment for Military Service, stated to Russian press that deployments of recruits are constant. Approximately 450 people have been transferred since the beginning of the year. However, an exact number of just how many Cubans are involved hasn’t been given.
The Moscow Times newspaper spoke to a high-ranking officer in the Russian Army who didn’t give his name. When talking about Cuban mercenaries, the officer said: “I was about to say it softly, in shock: there were only Cubans and Serbians there. Not everyone speaks Russian properly. It isn’t clear how we can work with them.”
The Moscow Times also spoke to a Spanish translator who “works with the Cuban diaspora.” The translator offered a similar account of the experience Andorf and Alex have talked about. “There are lots of young people who come here straight from Cuba looking for money. They aren’t local Cubans, they don’t stay in Moscow, they sign a contract immediately and go off to fight,” he said.
Migration benefits: the bait to recruit Cubans
The recruitment process to get Cuban citizens to join the Russian Army in Ukraine began with an amendment to Russian Law. In late April 2023, Vladimir Putin passed a law that reduced requirements and the time needed to apply for Russian citizenship.
The change included foreigners who have fought as part of the Russian Armed Forces for at least a year or have joined them during the war in Ukraine. As a result, there was now a fast-track opportunity to get Russian citizenship for anyone who signs a contract with Russia’s Ministry of Defense.
The question on everyone’s lips for months: What is the real nature of the relationship between Cuba and Russia in this matter?
The Cuban Government has avoided condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the international arena, on multiple occasions. In November 2022, Miguel Diaz-Canel “vehemently” denounced “unjust” sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s government and blamed the US and NATO for the war.
The lack of details about recruitment agreements and restrictions for Cuban recruits plant concerns about their rights and safety.
Stories of recruiting foreign mercenaries go beyond Cuban citizens. According to the British Ministry of Defense, the Russian Army is recruiting migrant workers from Central Asia in Russia to join its ranks in Ukraine. Russian recruiters have been scouting in mosques and migration offices, offering an array of incentives (bonuses of up to 2,390 USD and monthly wages of up to 4,160 USD) to attract migrants, as well as the abovementioned immigration benefits.
It’s presumed that recruited migrants will be sent to war zones in Ukraine, where fatalities are extremely high. Recruitment efforts form part of Russia’s Ministry of Defense’s strategy to reach its objective of 400,000 volunteers in the war in Ukraine, possibly to prevent conscription of citizens and to reduce domestic unease.
Russia is one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t have visa requirements for Cuban citizens. According to Russian tour operators’ statistics, approximately 11,000 travelers from the island visited the Eurasian country in 2022. For many, it’s the only way to escape the poverty and repression they suffer. Some that go to the other side of the world have the promise of exuberant wages and the certainty of a war that has a total death toll estimate of half a million.
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