Cubans are lured to the Russian army by high wages and passports

Russia has likely recruited Cuban nationals to fight in its army in Ukraine, according to a BBC investigation.

In September and October 2023, passport details of more than 200 Cubans who had allegedly joined the Russian military were leaked online by a pro-Ukrainian platform called InformNapalm.

The passport data was obtained by hacking the emails of a Russian military recruitment officer in Tula, south of Moscow, according to the site.

A search on Facebook found that 31 of the names mentioned in the Ukrainian leak correspond to accounts whose owners appear to be in Russia or linked to the Russian military.

For example, some have posted photos of themselves wearing Russian military uniforms, or in locations with Russian street signs or Russian license plates. Others list Russia as their current place of residence.

Many of those Facebook users began posting Russia-related content in August 2023, indicating when they might have arrived in the country.

Since the large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia has suffered heavy losses on the battlefield. A BBC investigation confirmed the names of more than 50,000 Russian troops killed in Ukraine, but the actual number is likely much higher. Ukraine’s own estimate puts the number of Russian soldiers killed or injured during the war at 500,000.

Recruiting foreigners to absorb some of the losses also helps the Kremlin avoid the risks posed by attempts to mobilize Russians by force. When Russia declared a partial mobilization in 2022, hundreds of thousands of men left the country.

Bringing Cubans to Russia is relatively easy. The two countries have been allies since the Cold War, Cubans do not need a visa to travel to Russia and direct flights to Moscow make the journey easier.

Meanwhile, the lucrative military contracts offered by Russia are attractive to Cuban men desperate to escape the worsening economic crisis on the US-sanctioned island.

Documents leaked online and media reports suggest Cuban men are being offered monthly payments of around $2,000 (£1,600) a month – a huge sum for Cuba, where the average monthly salary is less than $35 (£28).

The promise of Russian citizenship could also entice some Cubans.

Lucrative payments and Russian passports make serving attractive to CubansLucrative payments and Russian passports make serving attractive to Cubans

Cubans lured by lucrative rewards and Russian passports: This man’s face is blurred to protect his identity (Facebook)

Since the start of the war against Ukraine, Moscow has taken steps to make it significantly easier for foreigners to obtain Russian citizenship after serving time in the military, and the BBC has seen social media reports suggesting that some Cuban fighters received Russian passports within months. of registering.

A Russian passport allows visa-free travel to 117 destinations, while Cuban passport holders are only allowed 61 destinations.

A local media outlet in the city of Ryazan, near Moscow, appeared to confirm this theory last year when it published photos of new Cuban recruits signing contracts with the Russian military.

The Cubans wanted to “help our country achieve the objectives of the special military operation,” the report said, adding that “some of them would like to become Russian citizens in the future.”

But finding a reliable estimate of the number of Cubans who have joined Russian ranks is difficult.

Ukraine’s diplomatic envoy to Latin America and the Caribbean, Ruslan Spirin, estimated the number at 400 in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

A Cuban officer in Russia, Lázaro Gonzalez, told an exiled anti-government radio station that 90 Cubans served under his command.

According to him, they would likely be deployed in already occupied parts of eastern Ukraine rather than in front-line positions.

“While the Russian army is occupying areas in Ukraine, we Cubans are supporting the army in those cities and in the occupied territories, that’s all,” Gonzalez told the Miami-based radio station.

Last year, Marilin Vinent showed a photo of her son Dannys in Russian clothes, saying he had gone to Russia for a construction jobLast year, Marilin Vinent showed a photo of her son Dannys in Russian clothes, saying he had gone to Russia for a construction job

Last year, Marilin Vinent showed a photo of her son Dannys in uniform, saying he had gone to Russia for a construction job (REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini).

Numerous reports suggest that Cubans have often joined the Russian military after coming into contact with recruiters on social media, but not all seemed aware of the real nature of the job on offer.

A popular Cuban YouTube content creator told a story last year about two 19-year-olds from Cuba who claimed they had been offered construction jobs in Russia but were instead sent to the front lines in Ukraine.

Their case echoes the experiences of other foreigners who told the BBC they were lured to Russia by the promise of higher salaries, only to end up on the battlefield.

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For their part, Cuban authorities have made conflicting statements about their citizens’ involvement in the war in Ukraine.

After a flurry of reporting in September 2023 about Cubans fighting in Ukraine, authorities in Havana said they had arrested 17 people involved in their recruitment.

Shortly afterwards, however, Cuban Ambassador to Russia Julio Antonio Garmendía Peña said his government had nothing against Cubans who “just wanted to sign a contract and participate legally in this operation alongside the Russian army.”

Hours later, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla said Havana was against “the participation of Cuban citizens in any kind of conflict.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez shake hands during a meeting in Havana on April 20, 2023Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (R) and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez shake hands during a meeting in Havana on April 20, 2023

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Havana last year (RAMON ESPINOSA/AFP)

Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities have said they have seen an increase in the number of foreign fighters joining Russian forces in recent months, as well as foreigners among the soldiers the Ukrainian army has captured on the battlefield.

Petro Yatsenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Prisoner of War Agency, told the BBC that many of them came from low-income countries such as Cuba, India and Nepal, as well as from African and Central Asian states.

“Every week we capture up to five people from abroad on the front line as prisoners of war,” he said.

Their skills as combatants were low, he added, meaning their life expectancy on the battlefield was not even days, but hours.