The rule of the people, p.15
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       The Rule Of The People, p.15

           Christopher Read
 

  Chapter 7 – Thursday, November 17th

  Vietnam – 06:28 Local Time; Wednesday 23:28 UTC

  The Hongniao cruise missile checked its precise position with the American GPS network before confirming the coordinates via China’s Beidou equivalent. Attack profile duly re-calibrated, missile eighteen dove down to its cruising height of thirty metres, hugging the waves. With its small size and radar-absorbent surface, the Hongniao was designed to be almost invisible to enemy radar, a complex set of evasive manoeuvres helping it to bypass Vietnam’s anti-missile defences.

  Hongniao: Red Bird was the English translation, a gentle name which gave no hint as to the missile’s real power. Based on a Soviet design and improved by ex-Soviet scientists working for Beijing, the original version had spawned a host of successors, and the latest Russian technology had even been reverse-engineered through missiles China had obtained from Ukraine. Accurate, effective, versatile, easy to maintain and – most importantly – cheap, China had taken the best from America and Russia to create a potent weapon, a decade spent building up its cruise missile inventory, Beijing’s military planners looking to overwhelm any U.S. strike force by sheer numbers. Their stockpile now exceeded three thousand – more than four times the number of Tomahawk missiles launched by the U.S. during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

  Different versions of the Hongniao could be launched by surface ships, submarines and ground-based launchers, the two hundred and twenty missiles of the first phase now heading for a range of targets spread across a thousand kilometres. Missile eighteen had been launched from a destroyer cruising off the coast of Vietnam, China following the example of the U.S. by choosing to expend some of its stock of older missiles, the more modern HN-2000 kept in reserve. With the last waypoint reached, missile eighteen started its final approach, seven of its compatriots following-on close behind. Their target was Vietnam’s Phuc Yen Air Base, north of Hanoi, and its squadron of fighter aircraft. Three kilometres from impact, the defenders reacted with a swarm of surface-to-air missiles, the upgraded Soviet-era system struggling to cope. Missile eighteen skimmed a few metres above the ground in a relentless pursuit of its goal, the SAMs streaking past, just two cruise missiles destroyed. Moments later missile eighteen exploded, the airstrip’s control tower blown apart, the flaming debris seeming to entice the next Hongniao missile towards it. Within five minutes of the first strike, the air base was enveloped in an expanding cloud of smoke and dust, its buildings shattered, the two runways pockmarked and cratered, eight aircraft destroyed.

  Seven more missiles streaked along the Lao Cai to Hanoi expressway, staying no more than twenty metres above the road surface. One Hongniao malfunctioned but the other six sped towards the Ministry of Defence building, no SAMs deployed against them. Despite the early attacks the Ministry was not evacuated until a bare five minutes before the first missile struck, the front of the massive building eventually collapsing in on itself.

  Over the course of three explosive hours, every major army, air force and naval base was attacked, Vietnam’s command-and-control structure specifically targeted. The initial intelligence analysis put the Hongniao’s success rate at well over eighty percent, some 360 missiles achieving their objective. The number of casualties was anticipated to be high, U.S. analysts predicting anywhere between one and as many as three thousand.

  China’s response to Vietnam’s missile attack on the Liaoning was far in excess of what might be considered ‘proportional and just’. One hour after the cruise missile attacks had ceased, a massive artillery bombardment pummelled the Vietnamese defences along the border. Hanoi was barely a 150 kilometres from the Chinese border, Beijing showing what it was capable of, determined to reduce the number of those arrayed against it by at least one. That was the stick. The carrot was presented to the Vietnamese Ambassador later that morning – a bribe of favoured economic status and financial inducements, even a share in certain resources garnered from the Spratly Islands.

  It wasn’t accepted, but then nor was the offer formally rejected, Hanoi first waiting to see how the U.S. would react.

  Russia – 16:53 Local Time; 13:53 UTC

  The President’s suite of offices lay on the top floor of the triangular Kremlin’s Senate building, Evgeny Sukhov having his own numbered office just three doors down from Irina Golubeva. The President was still in Cologne, joining with certain other G-20 leaders and the U.N. Secretary General to try and thrash out some compromise over the Spratly Islands. That simply wouldn’t happen, none of the key players yet prepared to offer anything that might be even vaguely acceptable. China had certainly not given any indication that it was willing to return to the status quo, its actions of earlier that morning focusing the world’s attention far more than any pointless discussions.

  The sustained attack on Vietnam had met with almost universal condemnation, the U.S. leading the verbal assault against the Politburo. Secretary of State Burgess had even given a brief interview from a Hanoi street, the rubble of the Ministry of Defence pictured behind him. Under such circumstances, with the injured and dead still being recovered, it was inconceivable that anything constructive would be decided. China had shown what it was capable of, daring America and Russia to do their worst.

  Sukhov sat in semi-darkness, alone with his thoughts, wondering how long it would be before his fears for the future and the stress of his dual life ground him down. Forty would be young for a heart-attack but he wasn’t convinced it was that unlikely: the clandestine nature of his work had been exciting at first; now with every secret trip and phone call the twitch in his right eyelid threatened to become permanent, his conscience still struggling with what he had willingly ordered others to do.

  Sukhov believed himself to be capable rather than accomplished, trusting that loyalty and reliability would make up for the occasional lack of inspiration. Over the past nine months he had travelled the world, reinforcing President Golubeva’s message and working with people he once would have assumed were – at best – untrustworthy and no friend to Russia. Sometimes he felt overwhelmed with knowledge, fearful of forgetting which aspects were secret and which were not, worried as to what he would let slip and to whom.

  So far – with one crucial exception – everything had gone far more smoothly than anyone could have anticipated, the situation in the South China Sea following the predicted pattern; it might all be happening a little quicker than planned but that was all to the good. Public pressure on the U.S. to act against China was unrelenting with a New York Times/CBS poll indicating that 62% of Americans would support military action against the Chinese mainland.

  The sinking of the Koschei had been unfortunate, the wreckage now a potential embarrassment – but nothing more, no smoking gun. Even if ‘incontrovertible’ evidence came to light, or more specifically was dragged up from the sea bed, Moscow would merely cry foul and conclusively prove it was all a fabrication, the convenient truth the one that most people would believe. Conspiracy theories were common enough for it to be an expected response to any extreme event, books written and fortunes made, most generally treated with a hint of derision. The idea of converting a Project-633 submarine into a Chinese clone had always been controversial, it seen as a necessary evil to provoke America into a war; yet the Koschei’s attack on the USS Milius had blatantly failed to achieve that objective, China’s own actions potentially a far more effective trigger.

  Sukhov’s most immediate concern lay not with China but Astrakhan Oblast some thirteen hundred kilometres south-east of Moscow: Russia’s secessionists might be defeated but one very potent danger still remained. If the dissenting voice had been anyone other than General Morozov, then he and his few remaining troops could have been left bottled up outside the city of Astrakhan until the spring. With Morozov, that would be too much of a risk, the army’s allegiance not secure until the General was dead.

  Dissent amongst the military was sporadic and the majority of Russia’s armed forces seemed content not to choose sides,
only doing so when forced to become directly involved. The 58th Army of Georgia fame had shown the difficulties the President faced, with some of its units joining Morozov, others staying loyal. Their base north of the Caucasus Mountains was now a Golubeva enclave in what was effectively hostile territory, with even the civilian population of dubious allegiance. The major routes south from Volgograd towards Georgia and Azerbaijan, and east from Elista towards Astrakhan city, were presently impassable, while other roads in Astrakhan Oblast were only safe during daylight hours and in sufficient force. General Morozov was proving adept at making the most of his small numbers – no more than a thousand men, probably closer to five hundred. The city of Astrakhan and its population of half-a-million had cleverly managed to stay detached from the more extreme aspects of the conflict, Astrakhan’s mayor working hard to preserve a slightly suspect neutrality – the city hadn’t as yet declared for either side but nor was it specifically a no-go area for the military, and Astrakhan’s small naval facility had already chosen to ally itself with Morozov.

  The General had twice managed to evade Russia’s Special Forces and President Golubeva wanted the problem resolved before Russia started to press China from the north. Yet it wouldn’t be easy, the army needing to commit a large number of troops to have any hope of quickly completing the task. Loyal units were presently being transferred from the Central Military District, Sukhov concerned as to the wider implications and having to hope that the generals knew what they were doing.

  Morozov’s allies included significant elements within Russia’s intelligence community, primarily the FSB, and the Lubyanka Headquarters was gradually being culled of its more unreliable elements. One officer in particular had been a constant thorn in the Government’s side, stirring up concern in the Federal Assembly and State Duma with images of the military build-up in the Far East. Major Markova was proving both persistent and elusive, the Lubyanka network apparently reaching out as far as Bolshoy Kamen, and Markova’s confederates were obviously far more than just one infirm FSB sergeant.

  The interior troops of the MVD might have long since transformed into the National Guard of Russia, but the old inadequacies remained and they always seemed to be at least forty-eight hours behind Markova, it taking a combination of police persistence and teenage angst to redirect the search away from Vladivostok and towards Daniil Chavkin. The National Guard had reacted in their usual heavy-handed way, Chavkin bullied into revealing some of what had happened but terrified in case he said too much. It would take time to drag out exactly what he had told Markova and even though he was unlikely to have directly implicated the President, it had seemed prudent to allocate additional resources to assist the National Guard. It would be unhelpful for Markova to publicise Chavkin’s revelations but again not a disaster, the Kremlin braced to ridicule every accusation, Chavkin’s personal history and political affiliation already being manipulated to promote a more believable truth.

  Russia’s military preparations against China were in the final stages, the key elements already in place, their strategy based on a rapid land grab south through Xinjiang and west from Vladivostok. Chinese immigrants had flooded into Russia’s Far East for decades, the population imbalance a serious threat to Russia’s security. Vladimir Putin had dallied with the concept of some Sino-Russian pact, but neither side had trusted the other enough for it to become a reality. Irina Golubeva was more mindful as to future dangers, and with each year that passed China was fast becoming the natural enemy of both Russia and the United States.

  The Cold War might have been reignited with the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in the Baltic but Golubeva had worked hard to restore normal relations with the West. Publicly, America’s new Administration had distanced itself from supporting Russia, but support didn’t have to exist as some formal agreement – and Bob Deangelo seemed more than willing to play his part. Despite the Tomahawk attacks on Fiery Cross and Johnson South Reefs, America’s military commitment was still not yet sufficient to convince Golubeva that it was time to act; however, Beijing was conducting a very risky strategy and the assault on Vietnam was set to become a defining moment, the deaths of so many virtually certain to force Deangelo’s hand.

  The analysts predicted it would be at most a week before the American public finally got their wish, the U.S. expected to launch a massive missile attack at key targets on the Chinese mainland. Then it would be Russia’s turn, China facing attack on at least two fronts, the various simulations indicating that Beijing would fold within a month.

  A major unknown remained the attitude of North Korea: always difficult, threatening to plunge the world into a nuclear winter one minute and then offering eternal friendship the next, it was impossible to judge how Pyongyang would react. Their National Defence Commission was strangely silent on the unfolding crisis, North Korea apparently unwilling to antagonise Russia by publicly coming out in support of China. The economic and internal stresses of the past two decades had taken their toll but it would be foolish to underestimate North Korea’s military strength. Its relationship to China was complex, Beijing unhappy at the reputation of its ally but still wanting a suitable buffer; the two countries unquestionably shared fundamental national interests even if their means of achieving them was subtly different, China normally prepared to at least make some vague attempt at gentle persuasion. The U.S. – and indeed Russia – had ignored the problem of North Korea for far too long and future events would surely test the patience of their most inscrutable neighbour.

  Once the G20 leaders had returned from Cologne then the battle over the Spratly Islands could resume apace. Even if they delayed their departure until the Friday, that would give Golubeva three days at most to finally deal with Morozov. And this time there could be no mistakes.
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