Russian Prisoners of War: Angola, Afghanistan, Ukraine

The early Russian support of the now continuous MPLA government during the Angolan Civil War in the seventies moved from logistical support to strategy to battlefield leadership in 1987, writes Peter Polack.

The subsequent misconceived, Soviet advised, attack across the Lomba River towards the UNITA stronghold town of Mavinga in south-eastern Angola and the disastrous retreat to the isolated town of Cuito Cuanavale, saw the conflict ground to a sustained stand-off.

Prior to this, senior Soviet officers fled the battlefield in scarce helicopters while the Angolan FAPLA ground troops ran to the west, leaving massive amounts of Soviet supplied military equipment, some of which were driven into rivers to provide a convenient bridge. The equipment included a sophisticated SAM missile anti-aircraft system that was shortly turned over to the USA. Ukraine revisited.

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In September 1981, Soviet army Sergeant Major Nikolai Fedorovich Pestretsov was captured in a South African Defence Force ambush near Anhanca, Angola. Two Soviet Lieutenant colonels were also killed that week in similar circumstances as senior personnel moved to the front under the prevailing Soviet military doctrine, obsolete even then.

The photo of Pestretsov is eerily familiar to those recently coming from Ukraine into the public domain. US Sub-Committee on Security and Terrorism, The Role of the Soviet Union, Cuba, and East Germany in Fomenting Terrorism in Southern Africa March 1982 Volume 2,799, Exhibit 6(b)

That Soviet inspired military disaster nearly half a century ago should resonate among conscripts and low-level officers of the Russian Federation army recently abandoned in Ukrainian villages by senior officers, some of whom were themselves killed.

Captured, wounded and abandoned Soviet veterans of Afghanistan will find unregulated reports of the Ukraine experience haunting, often with the accompanying heavy guilt of having left their companions behind that no amount of vodka can extinguish.

The trite saying about the repetition of history will be to no avail as Putin persists in forcing the reluctant Russian military leadership to implement a Ukraine conflict policy that predictably fails at every turn. The rush of armor to the eastern front will be to no avail as more tanks explode and more conscripts die.

The thousands of seized luxury vehicles destined for oligarchs big and small, gathering dust at a port in Zeebrugge, Belgium, can only be a far-off dream for the lowly soldiers of the Russian army driven into a reprise of Crime and Punishment.

Unlike the Dostoevsky novel, there will be no redemption in Siberia or elsewhere.


Peter Polack is the author of The Last Hot Battle of the Cold War: South Africa vs. Cuba in the Angolan Civil War (2013), Jamaica, The Land of Film (2017) and Guerrilla Warfare: Kings of Revolution (2019).

He was a contributor to Encyclopedia of Warfare (2013) and worked as a part-time reporter for Reuters News Agency in the Cayman Islands 2014-19 but now lives in Canada.

His work has been published in Small Wars Journal, Defence Procurement International, American Intelligence Journal, U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center magazine, Military Times, Foreign Policy News, EU Today, Radio Free Europe, VOA Portuguese, South Africa Times, Africa Monitor, Folha de Sao Paulo, NODAL Cultura, Caribbean Life, Jamaque Paradis, History Cooperative, INews Cayman, Jamaica Gleaner, Miami Herald, Reuters and The New York Times.

His latest book entitled Soviet Spies Worldwide: Country by Country, 1940–1988 will be published by McFarland in 2022. The book is a compendium of Russian espionage activities with nearly five hundred Soviet spies expelled from nearly 100 countries worldwide. In April 2021 he completed Only the Young Shall Die by with Jack McCain USNR about raising the age of military enlistment. He is currently doing research on a curated collection entitled War In Pictures of almost 1,000 images throughout several conflicts over many centuries.

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