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Cuba says it dismantled human trafficking ring recruiting for Russia's war in Ukraine

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodríguez, shake hands during a meeting in Havana on April 20.
Ramon Espinosa/Pool
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AFP via Getty Images
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodríguez, shake hands during a meeting in Havana on April 20.

Updated September 5, 2023 at 11:59 AM ET

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Cuba says it has disrupted a scheme in Russia to recruit Cuban citizens to fight in Ukraine.

In a statement, Cuba's Foreign Ministry called the alleged plan a human trafficking ring. It said Cubans, both in Russia and on the island, had been recruited to fight in Russia's war against Ukraine.

Cuba is facing the worst economic crisis in decades. The government is struggling to keep the lights on and Cubans are struggling to keep food on their tables. If already bad relations with the United States deteriorate, things could get worse.

Over the past few months, Cuba has been diligent in batting back any suggestion that it is helping Russia in this conflict.

"Cuba plays no role in the war in Ukraine," the statement read. "It is acting and will act vigorously against whoever, from the national territory, participates in any form of human trafficking for the purposes of recruitment of mercenaries so that Cuban citizens use weapons against any country." Without giving details, Cuba says it has begun prosecuting those suspected of being involved in the recruitment.

The statement strikes a rare note of discord between the two allies. Historically, the Cuban government has had close relations the Russian government since Cuba's revolution in 1959 and sided with Moscow during the Cold War.

The Russian foreign minister traveled to Cuba in April as part of a tour of Russia's Latin American allies and, most recently, the Cuban defense minister held talks with his counterpart in Moscow. At the end of last year, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

In late May, a newspaper in the Russian city of Ryazanreported over a dozen Cuban citizens had joined Russia's armed forces to fight in Ukraine, in return for Russian citizenship.

The reports have not been independently verified. Moscow has yet to comment on the allegations.

The Cuban statement comes at a time when Russia is actively recruiting to boost the size of its armed forces fighting in Ukraine.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.