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Why Cuban migrants are fighting for Russia in Ukraine, as Belarus trains Cuban soldiers

Cuban immigrants living in Russia have joined the country’s military to fight with the troops invading Ukraine, after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a bill to grant citizenship to those who enlist, Russian media reported.

Local news outlets from the Ryazan region in central Russia reported that “several Cubans” were already taken Wednesday to the zone of the “special military operation” — Russian media’s euphemism to refer to the war zone in Ukraine — after signing a one-year contract to join the Russian army.

Ryazan Gazette said the Cubans and others who signed the contract to fight in Ukraine will receive one-time payments in rubles equivalent to $2433 from the federal budget and another $2500 from Ryzan’s regional budget. They will also receive a monthly salary of $2545, the report adds.

In a separate announcement last week, Belarus Deputy Defense Minister for International Military Cooperation Valery Revenko said he discussed the training of Cuban military personnel in Belarus with Cuban officials, including Cuba’s military attaché in Russia and Belarus, Col. Mónica Milián Gómez.

“Most attention was given to the training of Cuban military personnel in the Republic of Belarus and the promotion of military cooperation between the two countries in a planned manner,” Revenko said in a Tweet in Spanish.

According to a brief statement by Belarus’ Ministry of Defense, the meeting took place on the sidelines of a military weapons exhibition.

The developments came after a notable increase in high-level security and diplomatic exchanges between Cuba and Russia and a flurry of recent economic announcements cementing the two countries’ alliance amid the war in Ukraine. Cuban officials have justified the Russian invasion of Ukraine in public comments and have abstained from votes to condemn Putin’s actions at the United Nations and, more recently, at the World Health Organization.

In a meeting with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko last week, Cuba’s appointed president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, ratified his government’s “unconditional support to Russia in its clash with the West.”

Though there are few other details available, the official statements about the training of Cuban military officers in Belarus — which borders Ukraine and is being used by Moscow as a launching ground for the war and where Putin is positioning tactical nuclear weapons — have already caught the attention of Latin America observers.

“Belarus definitely does appear to be strengthening its outreach to anti-U.S. actors in Latin America in recent months,” said Evan Ellis, a Latin American Studies research professor at the U.S. Army War College. Belarus might be doing so, he said, to decrease its international isolation. Or it may also be acting as a “surrogate” in areas like military training, “where Russia does not currently have capacity due to its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.”

With so little available information, Ellis said it’s hard to know what types of training could be offered to the Cubans.

“It could be anything from cyber to intelligence to special operations training or just an ‘initial’ exchange to explore broader support,” he said. “Belarus may be doing this for Russia because Russia doesn’t have the capacity right now.”

There’s a third scenario too, he added: that Belarus may be a “’coordinating site’ where Cubans and others can meet with Russians and possibly other actors.”

A “very remote possibility” is that “the Russians want to let the Cuban military be at the table when they train their Belarusian colleagues up on the use of tactical nuclear weapons,” Ellis said. On Thursday, Belarus ruler Alexander Lukashenko said that Russia had already begun moving tactical nuclear warheads for storage in his country and hinted they could already be on Belarusian territory.

The optics do not bode well for Cuba, a European diplomat said.

News about Cuba’s intensifying military cooperation with Belarus “during an ongoing military aggression where Belarus has clearly sided with Russia and is currently in the process of hosting Russian nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory is certainly not welcomed by NATO, EU and the G7, nor the 141/143 UN member states who voted — in March and October 2022, respectively — to condemn Russia,” said the diplomat, who asked for anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.

So far, there are no public indications that the Cuban government is militarily involved in the conflict. But the news about its nationals risking death to gain Russian citizenship also speaks of the desperate situation on the island, where almost 300,000 people left last year to come to the United States to flee repression and poverty.

During the Soviet era, many Cubans studied in Russia, and some settled there after the socialist system collapsed.

Russia does not require visas for Cubans who travel there, making it a popular destination in recent years for those seeking to migrate onward to Europe. But many Cubans have also remained in Russia. Citing official government data, The Moscow Times reported that 28,000 Cubans traveled to Russia in 2019. But Cubans living there have complained on social media that gaining legal status to remain is very difficult.

Last week, Putin signed a decree to grant expedited citizenship to those signing one-year contracts with the Russian army to fight in Ukraine. The benefits also extend to their spouses, children and parents.

The Cuban migrants “expressed their desire to take part in the special military operation on the territory of Ukraine,” the outlet Ryazan Gazzete said. “It is worth noting that after that, the inhabitants of Cuba will be able to obtain citizenship of the Russian Federation.”