Cuban authorities have apprehended 17 individuals in connection with a human trafficking ring accused of recruiting young Cuban men to fight alongside the Russian military in Ukraine. The Cuban Foreign Ministry announced earlier this week that efforts were underway to dismantle the network. Colonel Cesar Rodriguez of Cuba’s Interior Ministry revealed on a television program that the internal organizer of these activities and 16 others have been arrested thus far.
The identities of those involved have not been disclosed, but Rodriguez stated that the group’s leader relied on two individuals residing in Cuba to recruit fighters in exchange for payment on behalf of Russia. Cuban prosecutor Jose Luis Reyes highlighted that the individuals implicated in the scandal could face severe penalties, including up to 30 years in prison, life imprisonment, or even the death penalty. The charges range from human trafficking and fighting as mercenaries to hostile actions against a foreign state.
Russia, which maintains strong political ties with Cuba, has been a sought-after destination for Cubans seeking to escape economic challenges in their home country. Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree enabling foreigners who join the Russian army to obtain citizenship through an expedited process.
Cuba has consistently denied any involvement in the conflict in Ukraine and vehemently rejects the use of its citizens as mercenaries. However, in May, Russian media reported that several Cubans had signed contracts with the Russian military and were deployed to Ukraine in exchange for Russian passports.
Russia has previously enlisted the assistance of private military forces, including the Wagner Group, which recruited fighters from Russian prisons and even recruited Syrians to fight alongside them. The ongoing Ukrainian counteroffensive, coupled with a lack of significant battlefield gains for Russia, prompted the utilization of such forces.