The rule of the people, p.22
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       The Rule Of The People, p.22

           Christopher Read
 

  * * *

  The break turned out to be far longer than Markova had expected, the rest of the morning spent in the house’s magnificent library. Although unable to read virtually any of the books, she could grasp what many related to, the breadth of content and the quality of the hand-drawn images breathtaking. There was little else to do, no electronic distractions and no chance to even go for a walk. The guards were ever-present but careful to keep a respectful distance; not that Markova had any interest in trying to escape, knowing that her best chance of freedom still lay with Cheng and her ability to persuade her superiors to be more forthcoming.

  They met again briefly over lunch, Cheng deliberately avoiding any mention of Morozov, the United States a slightly less contentious topic. Unlike the ill-informed hatred for America shown by many in Russia, Cheng’s attitude was rather more forgiving and to Markova it revealed a subtle shift in China’s own mind-set, the desire for a peaceful accord perhaps more widespread than she had anticipated.

  Cheng even revealed something of her own background, her school-learnt English skills enhanced by virtue of eighteen months in India, plus eight more as part of a U.N. peacekeeping force in Liberia. Despite her civilian clothes, Markova’s best guess was that Cheng was in Military Intelligence, Chinese protocol doubtless ensuring that her rank matched that of Markova.

  The early afternoon had started to drag and it was almost a relief to be called back to the dining room. If Cheng hoped that a few hours’ reflection would make her guest more receptive then she would be disappointed, Markova ready to dismiss any quid pro quo inducements, such as a free ride back across the border.

  This time Cheng was accompanied by an officer in army uniform, the two stars of his insignia suitably impressive. “Lieutenant-General Liang Qinglin,” introduced Cheng formally, “Deputy Chief of the General Staff.”

  Liang surprised Markova by stepping forward to offer his hand in greeting, the General seemingly unconcerned at the risks involved in consorting with a potential enemy.

  He waved Markova to a seat, “I’m told, Major, that you need convincing our offer is sincere and I trust that my presence here will suffice. For what it’s worth, you also have my word that the satellite images you’re about to see have not been altered in any way and were downloaded just two hours ago.”

  The language remained English but Liang could have just as easily swapped to Russian. Military co-operation between Russia and China had been particularly popular during the Putin era, no real secrets shared, it more a show to irritate the West. As an expert in military history, Liang had given several lectures at the Frunze Military Academy in Moscow; he had even once met Morozov there, although the memory was an unclear one.

  “Unfortunately,” Liang continued, “the situation in Astrakhan Oblast has altered significantly in the last twelve hours. If you wish to help General Morozov, I’m afraid time is fast running out.”

  The top of the rosewood table had the usual of water, pad and pens, plus a digital display for each of the participants, the screen in front of Markova presently blank. Liang nodded to Cheng and a composite satellite image instantly appeared on the display. “A hundred and fifty kilometres south-east of Volgograd,” said Liang in explanation.

  It took Markova a few seconds to make sense of what she was seeing, the armoured vehicles and troops parked up as though awaiting orders. She was able to zoom in to pick out individual soldiers, even get close enough to work out their officer’s rank. The number of armoured vehicles suggested at least one company, some ten tanks in total. Markova scrolled to north and south, trying to get some indication as to the veracity of what she was being shown. Given a few hours she could have checked more definitively and for all she knew the pictures could have been taken a month or a year ago.

  Liang seemed content to wait for Markova to finish her analysis and made no attempt to hurry her. “28th Brigade,” he said helpfully.

  Markova nodded her agreement, “I assume there’s more?”

  There were another eight composite images, each one showing something similar and taken together they revealed the deployment of a full armoured brigade of four thousand men. A final map view put the nine images into a geographic context: the army units were concentrated to the north and west of the city of Astrakhan, with Morozov hemmed in to the east and south by the political and physical barriers of Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. The Russian army was finally moving in force to neutralise Russia’s one-time Chief of the General Staff, the 28th Armoured Brigade transferred from its base 1400 kilometres east of Moscow. Veterans of the Ukraine conflict, the Brigade was a loyal and capable Kremlin enforcer, its commander presumably unimpressed by Morozov’s recent exploits.

  “We estimate General Morozov has some eight hundred men,” said Liang in conclusion. “They’re relatively well armed with perhaps a dozen tanks and some air support, even two corvettes from the Caspian Flotilla. But they’re outnumbered five-to-one with the Russian army closing in from at least three directions. We’re aware Morozov has his supporters in Volgograd and to the north but they certainly won’t act while he is holed-up in Astrakhan. According to our source, Special Forces will be landing at the port area of the city before daybreak – by then the trap will already be shut tight. No doubt Morozov will try to fall back to the city centre or the Volga Delta but the final outcome is inevitable.”

  “Then why not just release this information to General Morozov?”

  Liang opened his hands wide in a gesture of frustration, “General Morozov would be foolish to place his trust in such unsubstantiated and unsolicited data. We can turn the odds more in his favour but only if he acts quickly.” He let the thought hang for a second, Markova knowing what he was about to say. “You, Major, are the only one who might convince him that he cannot defend Astrakhan and hope to survive; if he assumes we are exaggerating and attempts to do the impossible, then President Golubeva will have her victory. That will be of no help to any of us.”

  Markova stared at the map image, visualising the red icons representing the spetsnaz and 28th Brigade moving to encircle Astrakhan, their grip tightening with the defenders nowhere left to run. It made absolute sense but she still had no real guarantee that it wasn’t just some clever Chinese fantasy, with Morozov being offered up on a plate to Golubeva as some sort of bribe; victory would come easily if Morozov could be persuaded to abandon well-prepared positions and retreat.

  But retreat to where? Both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan would be unlikely to risk upsetting their powerful neighbour whatever inducements were offered, and the loyalist elements from the 58th Army effectively blocked Morozov’s route through the Caucasus Mountains and into Georgia. Eight hundred men, plus armoured vehicles – there was just nowhere for them to go.

  Liang seemed to have read her mind and the display changed to show a satellite image of the city of Astrakhan, the single route east across the Volga highlighted. The E40 was an International Highway which ran all the way from Calais almost to China, Astrakhan just seventy kilometres from the border with Kazakhstan.

  “We’re aware that certain elements in Kazakhstan are willing to offer Morozov sanctuary,” said Liang, studying Markova carefully. “It would be limited to Morozov and his close associates; twenty men at most. Not perhaps ideal but it would give him a chance to regroup.”

  Markova stared at Liang, appalled at what he was suggesting and bewildered as to how such a betrayal could possibly help China. Morozov would never abandon his men. And if he did, he would be seen as nothing more than a coward, willing to sacrifice everything to save his own skin. There simply had to be some other way.

  Liang’s face broke into a broad smile, “Relax, Major; General Morozov has steadfastly rejected all such offers. Death or glory seems to be his intention; something I can admire if not necessarily agree with.”

  Markova frowned in confusion, trying to make sense of what Liang was saying. “If he sits tight or retreats, he’s an
nihilated; with eight hundred men, Morozov can hardly attack four thousand.”

  Liang gave a slight nod of agreement, before explaining exactly what the CMC had in mind. To begin with the plan had merely been a set of vague ideas, Liang and others curious as to what they would do in Morozov’s shoes. Markova’s presence so close to China’s border had given it added purpose, the final more detailed plans cobbled together in just twenty-four hours once she had reached Tieling. The projections were consequently based on a range of dubious assumptions and an idealistic appraisal as to General Morozov’s skills, the odds of success suggesting that he might well be better off choosing the Kazakhstan route. The pitfalls for China were also significant, the CMC prepared to throw away several key advantages in its support for Morozov.

  Markova listened intently, questions asked and answered, the data pulled apart to see if there was some better way forward. Large-scale military actions were well beyond Markova’s expertise, and she used common-sense to try and plug the gaps in her understanding, seeing the potential while worrying as to the complexity of what was being proposed.

  “A decision must be made soon,” encouraged Liang. “If Morozov agrees, there can be no second chances and the timing is crucial.”

  Seated thousands of kilometres away from Astrakhan, it was impossible to know what was best. Markova sensed that Liang was very much in the mould of Morozov, her instincts suggesting he was holding nothing back, a temporary understanding with Morozov the best that China could hope for.

  Markova felt she’d heard enough to at least pass on Liang’s offer directly to her superior, together with a suitable recommendation. The blurring of the line between allies and enemies was all-too common of late, General Morozov and China each searching for their own form of salvation.
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