Russia Has Stumbled Upon Cuito Cuanavale In Ukraine

By Andrew G. Gourgoumis, Colonel in the United States Marine Corps, for The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs

With its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Russian Federation intended to swiftly topple the Ukrainian government. However, the Russian army was rebuffed and  quickly compelled to re-order and temper its objectives to consolidate control of the Eastern Oblasts and a land bridge to Crimea. Today, after over 18 months of war, Russia and Ukraine find themselves in a stalemate. There is currently little evidence that the axis of attack towards Ukraine’s political center of gravity, Kyiv, were feints or turning movements to relieve pressure from the eastern front. As Russia continues the fight, analysts unceasingly seek historical comparisons. Is Ukraine Putin’s Afghanistan? Has Putin crossed the Rubicon—or maybe the Hellespont? However, analysts overlook a more appropriate example for analyzing Russia’s position in Ukraine: Cuito Cuanavale. 

Cuito Cuanavale, the campaign of the South African Defense Force’s (SADF) last intervention in Angola from August 1987 to March 1988, provides an underappreciated historical lesson in the conduct of maneuver warfare and the domestic impact of military expeditions. The battle was the largest conventional battle on the African continent since El Amein, Egypt in 1942 during World War II. The strategic and operational challenges coupled with the political considerations and constraints of South Africa’s Cuito campaign provide great insight into the Russian Federation’s current dilemma in Ukraine. The Russian Federation, like South Africa in the late 1980s, is in a position with no good options.  


The Angolan Civil War began in 1974, following liberation from Portugal, and lasted until 2002. The communist People’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA)—the ruling military arm of the Angolan government—and the Union for the Total Liberation of Angola (UNITA) were the primary belligerents. The war served as a microcosm of the Cold War, pitting the Cuban- and Soviet-backed FAPLA against the SADF- and U.S.-backed UNITA. South Africa supported UNITA for several reasons: fear of a communist regime in Angola, fear of FAPLA support for the opposition organization South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) in South African-controlled Namibia, and insecurity due to new insurgencies unleashed by African decolonization. By fighting communist forces, South Africa hoped to align with the West at a time when its apartheid government had lost global legitimacy. By 1987, FAPLA had isolated UNITA in southeast Angola, east of the town of Cuito Cuanavale. 

South Africa launched its incursion of Angola to prevent both FAPLA’s destruction of UNITA and SWAPO control of Namibia. Despite the stakes, political and diplomatic considerations drove South Africa to keep the level of forces as small as possible and maintain operational control at the highest level. Although deploying more than 9,000 troops, the SADF assault stalled 300 miles from its nearest bases in Namibia, similar to Russia’s initial assaults into Ukraine. Despite some initial SADF operational success, Angolan and Cuban forces repelled SADF’s major assaults. As SADF casualties mounted, political support in South Africa eroded, resulting in SADF withdrawal, Angolan government control of the Angolan-Namibian border for the first time since 1981, Namibian independence, and an acceleration to the end of South Africa’s apartheid government.


Ironically, Russia is now on the other side of this narrative. In Ukraine today, the Russian Federation plays the role of the SADF while Ukraine is in a similar situation as Angola’s FAPLA. Although the number of SADF forces involved was a fraction of the current Russian effort, the difference in scale does not detract from the corresponding lessons. 


The series of battles near Cuito Cuanavale included five major SADF and UNITA attacks. From August to November 1987, the SADF conducted Operation MODULER to protect UNITA control of southeast Angola. The SADF intended to form a defense along the Chambinga River, 30 kilometers from Cuito Cuanavale, and seize Menongue to establish a provisional UNITA government. However, a piecemeal approach failed to bring the full force of SADF power against FAPLA at a single decisive point. Although the SADF inflicted significant casualties on FAPLA, even halting FAPLA’s advance at the Battle of Lomba River, the SADF were  not able to quickly transition to the offense and exploit the opportunity to destroy the FAPLA forces east of Cuito because it lacked the forces and necessary planning for a pursuit. 

In both Angola and Ukraine, incremental campaigning has allowed adversary reconstitution. The SADF faced superior enemy armor such as tanks and personnel carriers, the threat of Cuban-Angolan fighter aircraft superiority, and effective air defense systems. Today, the Russian Federation similarly struggles with challenges to armor concealment, survivability, and mobility. As the operation settled into a stalemate, the SADF persisted though its reconnaissance assets struggled. The tactical parallels to Russian forces’ circumstances along the Dnieper River and Kherson are difficult to miss. Russian Federation forces in Ukraine have often failed to advance in areas where the forward line of troops became entrenched along natural obstacles, much like SADF challenges at the Chambinga and Cuito Rivers. 

Both conflicts reveal the challenges associated with a loss of offensive momentum and the subsequent decision point that emerges. In November 1987, the SADF faced the following options: conclude the operation and withdraw from Angola, conduct an offensive to drive FAPLA across the Cuito River and then conclude, or seize Cuito Cuanavale from the west to isolate and destroy the FAPLA forces in the east. South African leadership decided to assault Cuito Cuanavale to destroy FAPLA and set conditions favorable for a withdrawal. It is unclear whether the Russian Federation today could establish similarly acceptable and achievable criteria for their own withdrawal. Much like FAPLA, Ukrainian frontline forces are regularly resupplied and have strong defenses. Like the SADF in Angola, the Russian military in Ukraine lacks relative operational speed and momentum, giving its adversary time to improve its positions and replace destroyed tanks. In addition, competent intelligence provides Ukraine early warning of attacks as it did for FAPLA throughout the Cuito campaign. 

Despite all risks, the SADF still sought a decisive assault to establish favorable conditions. The final SADF offensive on November 25, 1987 crossed the Chambinga River but failed to inflict enough damage to prevent future FAPLA offensives against UNITA at Mavinga. It was a politically risky and tactically bold decision considering FAPLA’s advantages, but still significantly attrited FAPLA. That same day, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 602 condemned South Africa’s illegal entry into Angola and demanded its unconditional withdrawal. Today, the Russian Federation faces similar international condemnation – albeit Russian veto power protects it from a United Nations resolution – and the prospect of success from renewed offensives is just as unavailing as it was for the SADF.

The SADF’s inability to establish an operational reality conducive to South African political leadership claiming victory serves as a most poignant reflection for Russian military leaders commanding forces in Ukraine. In January 1988, the SADF executed Operation HOOPER to end the battle decisively by seizing the Cuito bridgehead, placing UNITA in a position of advantage, and concluding the campaign. Despite the SADF’s tactical success, the campaign became increasingly unsustainable as conscript casualties grew and progress remained stalled. The SADF achieved a partial FAPLA withdrawal but suffered heavy casualties.  SADF morale and discipline plummeted to the point that South African President Botha had to visit the front to reinvigorate the troops, a familiar struggle to the Russian forces in Ukraine. On March 23, 1988, the SADF executed Operation PACKER, one final attack on Tumpo, which failed, and thereby effectively ended the campaign.


Both in Angola and Ukraine, South African and Russian forces struggled to protect ground troops from air threats in an intense reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance fight. The belligerents overcame enemy anti-air capabilities with the primacy of long-range artillery and the effectiveness of electronic warfare jamming. Both conflicts demonstrate how complex command and control structures—with decision authority centralized at the highest levels—inhibit initiative, synchronization, and tempo. Management of Russian Federation operations in Ukraine at the highest levels contributed significantly to an early lack of momentum and initiative. A key contrast is that the SADF proved to be generally tactically competent but constrained its actions for political reasons. The Russian Federation does not echo this tactical competence or self-restraint in Ukraine. 

The Russian Federation fears losing influence over Ukraine and the post-Cold War order just as South Africa feared losing its Namibian buffer state and post-colonial self-determination. The most pertinent similarity, however, is the strategic decision that Russia must make now that it has arrived at its metaphorical Cuito Cuanavale: to continue or to withdraw. South Africa achieved some tactical victories and a few strategic objectives, but the potential domestic and international political repercussions from either an escalation or an immediate withdrawal offered them few good options. Russia’s current strategic and political position is much worse. Putin is not politically capable of reordering objectives a second time. He has tied success to annexation of several oblasts.  Further escalation to solidify territorial gains or topple the Ukrainian government risks increased NATO involvement or loss of support from the People’s Republic of China.  South Africa could withdraw and still claim victory given the nature of its objectives, but by pursuing annexation, the Russian Federation does not have this option.

South Africa attained some tactical objectives by defeating the FAPLA offensive and denying FAPLA the ability to immediately resume the attack by end of the SADF campaign. The campaign achieved an apparent diplomatic objective of a withdrawal of Cuban forces by creating the political conditions that forced Cubans and Soviets to choose between deploying more troops and equipment, withdrawing, or negotiating—a similar position for Ukraine’s supporters. Through a limited tactical action, South Africa successfully compelled each party to negotiate and subsequently agreed to a mutual withdrawal with Cuba. Nevertheless, the military campaign was a strategic failure. The SADF’s goal was to push FAPLA completely west of the river, but a combination of piecemeal campaign planning, limited capabilities, and low tolerance for casualties prevented the SADF from achieving a decisive outcome. Instead, South Africa responded to the renewed sense of urgency to end the war with the negotiated withdrawal. 

The Russian Federation failed to synchronize the functions of maneuver, fire support, and logistics and incorrectly assessed Ukrainian and Western resolve. Despite significant losses, Ukraine’s resilience mirrors FAPLA’s moral and symbolic victory. Russia is facing the prospect of continued Ukrainian offensives, much like FAPLA and Cuba had planned for in 1988. Additionally, Russian referendums in Eastern Oblasts echo South Africa’s intentions to establish a provisional UNITA government in Menongue. 

Russia has realized the limits of its power and capabilities, and domestic intolerance for casualties is growing rapidly. The invasion presents challenges to Putin’s domestic freedom of action and control. As the Russian Federation ignores its need for more troops, as did South Africa, it threatens the balance of the Clausewitzian trinity of the government, the military, and the people. Over the last 200 years, Russia always sought to overcome operational challenges with immense amounts of manpower, resulting in massive casualties. Today, new Russian offensives, barring infeasible troop increases at unthinkable–and targetable–concentrations, will likely prove as futile as they did for the SADF at Cuito Cuanavale. Yet the domestic and political implications in Russia remain uncertain. 


The situation in Ukraine may change but, for today, the operational and political dynamics of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale remain relevant. The possibility of Ukraine regaining control of its eastern border for the first time in more than eight years is reminiscent of FAPLA recovering control of the Namibian border. In Angola, a negotiated settlement was made possible by waning international support for both sides of the conflict. Putin’s supporters, inside and outside of Russia, are increasingly concerned about Russia’s aggression. There may be some early indicators of diminishing support in Ukraine’s case, but it is certainly not a foregone conclusion as Ukraine maintains distinct tactical and moral advantages. The Russian Federation squandered an early window of opportunity to synchronize maneuver, logistics, and fire support with operational initiative. The lessons of Cuito Cuanavale teach us that, short of applying infeasible resources under floundering political support, it is nearly impossible to regain that momentum once the offensive settles into an established defensive front.

(This post is republished from The Fletcher Forum.)

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