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Cuba accuses Russia of quietly recruiting its citizens into the war in Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It sounds like a chapter out of a Cold War-era novel. Cuba says a covert and, as of yet, unnamed group has been recruiting citizens living on the island and in Russia to fight in the ongoing war in Ukraine. The Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs says it is working to dismantle the ring and bring those responsible to justice. Thus far, Moscow, Cuba's one-time communist ally, has been quiet. Here to help us understand what this all means is Chris Simmons, a former counterintelligence officer whose expertise is Cuban spy craft. Welcome, Chris, to the program.

CHRIS SIMMONS: Thank you for having me.

FADEL: So what's your sense of why Cuba is making this accusation so publicly?

SIMMONS: I think the easy - short explanation is because they got caught, once again. This is just the latest in a long series of criminal enterprises run by the Cuban government. And any time they've gotten caught, historically, their first act is to deny it and then imprison some individuals as proof that they had no knowledge.

FADEL: So really covering their tracks, in your view?

SIMMONS: Correct. And this has been - this type of endeavor has been going on for about 60 years, starting with terrorist support and then them serving as the proxies for intelligence efforts on behalf of Russia and others, drug trafficking. So it's just - it's institutionalized criminal enterprise by the Havana government.

FADEL: Now, Cuba has made it very publicly clear, at least tried to say, that they have nothing to do with the war in Ukraine, that they had nothing to do with these recruits of Cubans to go fight in the war. Is that about placating the U.S. and telling the U.S., we're not involved?

SIMMONS: It goes back to the - their deniability. Cuba is a police state, and they proudly boast that. A million Cuban residents are part of what's called the Committees and Defense of the Revolution, which is essentially a neighborhood snitch program. So the idea that someone could be running a mercenary ring without the government's knowledge is ludicrous. It's absolutely impossible for major criminal enterprises to exist without the Cuban government's knowledge and involvement.

FADEL: So it doesn't ring true to you. But does the public announcement from Cuba suggest at all that there are cracks in the long relationship between Cuba and Russia?

SIMMONS: The - yes, because there was also - Cuba had good relations with the Ukraine as well. And so before this became public, there had been some intense media coverage, on island, debating the pros and cons of staying out of any aspect of the war in Ukraine, since both were allies.

FADEL: Does Cuba need Russia? I mean, will this impact their relationship? I mean, this is a relatively isolated place. It's one of the few remaining communist countries. It's facing its worst economic crisis in decades.

SIMMONS: They absolutely do need Russia. The Cuban economy remains devastated, and the Russians have been their biggest and most generous supporter. And now, unlike the Cold War, they have a chance to play Russian aid off against Chinese aid. So they're in a very strong economic and political position, and they absolutely need Russia.

FADEL: Will this impact their relationship, though, publicly accusing Russia of this?

SIMMONS: The - I think there'll be some short-term implications. But long term, it won't have any effect at all.

FADEL: That was former counterintelligence officer Chris Simmons. Thank you, Chris.

SIMMONS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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