The rule of the people, p.26
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       The Rule Of The People, p.26

           Christopher Read
 

  * * *

  The many channels of Chinese Central Television were quick to broadcast the bloody scenes from Shanghai, no image too gruesome, it as much for world consumption as the early-morning Chinese viewer. The international CCTV News focused its entire output on the chaos of those minutes and their aftermath, eye witness accounts and video evidence used to emphasise the sequence of events.

  The news anchor helped ensure viewers never lost sight of one basic fact: the police attempt to disperse the protestors had been met with deadly force, automatic weapons used against them by at least four gunmen. The casualty reports only emphasised the brutality of the moment, with six policemen killed, fifteen wounded, the violent scenes caught on innumerable cameras, no attempt now made to censor the images.

  Three protestors had also died, all as a result of gunshot wounds. The authorities again blamed their deaths on the four gunmen, two of whom had in turn been shot by police, one dead, the other critically injured. No names were given, although it was stated that they were both third-year students at Shanghai University and part of a radical faction opposed to the Politburo.

  Independent sources were able to corroborate most of what Beijing claimed, the Western media offering a slightly more balanced view with video of the police dragging protestors away, some beaten and bloody. Unconfirmed reports suggested that at least sixty demonstrators had been seriously injured, and around four hundred arrested.

  Across China there was an immediate public backlash, people’s righteous anger now firmly directed at the anti-war protestors, everyone shocked by the carnage in Shanghai. Within hours the numbers in Tiananmen Square had almost halved, the police presence similarly winding down, other cities quick to follow Beijing’s lead.

  The one exception was Hong Kong; yet even there the mood that morning was one of restraint, the shootings in Shanghai causing many to re-think. A strategy of perpetual confrontation was never likely to win through without popular support – that was now in question, the moderates concerned as to the nature of their more fervent allies.

  The police’s sacrifice in Shanghai had given the Politburo a breathing space free from the political concerns of an active peace movement. As to how long it would last could well depend on the nature and extent of American reprisals, Beijing not yet willing to relinquish its recent gains.

  Astrakhan, Russia – 06:40 Local Time; 03:40 UTC

  Colonel Vorotaev sat in the mobile command post and studied the main display, pleased that the hours of waiting were finally over, now with a one-time chance for him to impress under true battlefield conditions. This wasn’t just about defeating General Morozov; this was also a race to break through to Astrakhan, the commanders of the 28th Armoured Brigade’s three battalions each determined to gain the subsequent bragging rights.

  And it wasn’t just Vorotaev who was desperate to win, most of the Battalion having a sizeable bet as to who would be first to reach the Astrakhan Kremlin. The city might supposedly be neutral but with its eleven islands and many bridges, General Morozov would be foolish to forgo such a strong defensive position, everyone expecting he would make a final stand somewhere in the city.

  The noose around Astrakhan was slowly being tightened, every escape route effectively blocked. The Brigade’s 1st and 2nd Battalions were moving south-east on either side of the Volga River, the 3rd Battalion east from the city of Elista; between them lay the grasslands of the Eurasian Steppe, it now the domain of the spetsnaz and helicopter gunships.

  The 1st Battalion, commanded by Vorotaev, had by far the easiest route into Astrakhan, the two lanes of the Caspian Highway well-maintained and leading directly to the city. The latest intelligence indicated it would also be the most hazardous and the usual Battalion Groups had been resized to suit, the 1st Battalion augmented with a tank company and other support units, almost eight hundred men in total, superiority in numbers no longer quite so relevant.

  Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance – the C4ISR system gave the Battalion the operational flexibility to react instantly to changing circumstances, the network reaching all the way from the joint operations centre in Moscow to a tank commander leading the charge into Astrakhan. With a single tap on the screen, Vorotaev could scroll through each of the units under his direct control, able to adjust the deployment of a whole company to an individual IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicle).

  In fact it was exactly like some computer game, friendly vehicles and sensors all integrated together to show a real-time view of the combat area. At a basic level, the battlefield tracking picture was a highly detailed map; overlays could then be added as required – position of friendly units, planned deployment, status etc. Vorotaev could view the road ahead from the lead vehicle or map out exactly where he wanted each tank to go and what they should target – a quick sketch onto the computer screen, a tap of confirmation and his new orders would instantly be passed on to the relevant units. Once contact was made with the enemy, targeted updates were distributed automatically, local commanders quickly able to adjust their tactics.

  The one disadvantage of such an over-abundance of data was that everyone’s actions could be later analysed and dissected, every mistake and misjudgement criticised; Vorotaev might even have his orders over-ruled, his Brigade Commander or some Moscow general perhaps deciding that he was being too aggressive or too cautious. General Morozov’s usual hit-and-run tactics would struggle to be effective against the armour and speed of the 28th Brigade, and the Brigade Commander was anticipating a relatively straightforward mopping-up operation – or at least until they reached the first bridge across the Volga.

  Vorotaev’s tactical plan had no need for subtlety: the Volga was never more than a few kilometres to the east, the only choke points an occasional small town between the highway and the west bank of the Volga; his right flank was secured by an overflight of helicopter gunships, with at least two always on station. Regular satellite updates and intelligence reports had helped build a clear picture of the enemy’s dispositions, Morozov’s main defence line situated six kilometres outside of Astrakhan. Several of his armoured vehicles were already reported to be withdrawing from further north and west, others taking up new positions close to the Astrakhan Kremlin.

  Vorotaev had little choice but to try and forget about Moscow’s all-seeing eye. In a few years, the generals might well choose to take the men out the tanks and simply control everything from the command post, the operators becoming even more removed from the consequences of their actions. Drone aircraft and tanks would be battling it out with money and technology overtaking the need for coolness under fire and something as basic as bravery, the medals given to someone who had been a thousand kilometres from the actual fighting and never actually seen a dead body.

  The mobile command post was in fact made up of a pair of command vehicles protected by an under-size HQ section. Vorotaev was one of six men squeezed into the confined space of the lead vehicle, the atmosphere already stuffy and oppressive, sweat slowly dripping down the back of Vorotaev’s neck. Unlike its outdated predecessors, the command post was relatively quiet; operational protocols restricted radio communication to the combat phase and even individual reports from unit commanders were generally displayed as text, graphics or some combination of both – unless of course it was a desperate plea for help.

  It might seem a less chaotic environment than in the past but Vorotaev was already fighting a headache, the flickering of the computer screens and the background hum of the air-conditioning a subtle but irritating combination. Vorotaev invariably drank several bottles of water with every stint in the command vehicle and his throat always seemed to be dry and parched, the stress and claustrophobia of their situation affecting each man slightly differently.

  For the moment, the two command vehicles were stationary seventy-five kilometres north-west of Astrakhan, Vorotaev expecting to be on the move again in two to three hours, once the first units ap
proached the outskirts of the city. By now the spetsnaz should have already captured the port area, additional units moving in to cut off the rebels’ escape routes to the east and south.

  Vorotaev only knew Morozov by reputation and he had no particular feelings for him one way or the other, the General’s beef with Golubeva not any of his concern. Vorotaev had his orders and that was enough, Morozov just another target for the Kremlin’s displeasure and certainly not the last general to suffer the consequences of over-ambition.

  Vorotaev idly scrolled through the various map displays, checking to ensure everything was as it should be: sunrise was fifteen minutes away and so far the lead platoon had met zero resistance, not even an anti-tank mine. The landscape had quickly turned from lush grassland to sandy semi-desert, the terrain now sparsely covered with vegetation, farms and villages nestling up against the west bank of the Volga River.

  Abruptly the map display flickered before defaulting to show the most dangerous threat – or in this case the only one – the lead platoon reporting contact with an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), one vehicle damaged but still operational, two men slightly injured.

  Vorotaev saw no need to respond: the platoon was commanded by one of the Brigade’s most promising officers and for the moment he was keen to see how well the Lieutenant coped; if he met a serious problem then Vorotaev could easily vector in air support or move up reinforcements, the rest of the Battalion keeping pace just a few kilometres behind the lead unit.

  The occasional IED was to be expected, Vorotaev just surprised at how ineffective Morozov’s tactics were, anticipating something more resourceful. The first serious challenge lay fifty kilometres from Astrakhan on the outskirts of Narimanov: at least sixty troops and two IFVs armed with anti-tank missiles guarded the town and the route south – by themselves that would have been routine, but in well-prepared positions and backed-up by a surface-to-air missile system, it was a much more interesting proposition.

  After Narimanov it was a relatively clear ride to Astrakhan, the first smattering of buildings situated some eight kilometres from the city centre. Moscow hoped that the civilian losses would be kept to a minimum but it wasn’t something high-up on Vorotaev’s list of priorities, and he had no specific orders concerning built-up areas; he would try to limit casualties but not at the expense of his own men and certainly not for the sake of saving some rundown wooden shack.

  The lead platoon paused four kilometres shy of Narimanov, two reconnaissance drones sent to confirm the veracity of the intelligence reports. Both were disabled within minutes by a radio-jammer but not before they had established the presence of the IFVs and a short-range SAM system, two machine-guns also covering the highway.

  Vorotaev sat and watched via video-link as a missile strike obliterated each target, two MI-28H helicopter gunships sweeping in from the north-west to tidy up – not that they were actually needed. Ten minutes later the lead platoon drove cautiously past, pausing briefly to check for survivors; in fact, apart from the still burning vehicles, the area was deserted – no bodies, no wounded, the human defenders looking to have abandoned the position soon after the drones were detected.

  That still left Vorotaev with the problem of whether to waste time securing the town or splitting his forces. With a historic dam and a shipyard complex to the south, it was always going to be difficult should the defenders now choose to make a stand. It didn’t help that Narimanov was also home to Beluga caviar, the Brigade Commander ordering Vorotaev to adapt his plans accordingly.

  Quite how he was supposed to avoid upsetting the sturgeon presently thrashing about in Narimanov’s fish farms wasn’t made clear and an urgent request for air support was put on hold, no reason given; fifteen minutes later, a probe deeper into the town illustrated the potential problems – five killed, the defenders well-entrenched with mortars as well as machine-guns, their former brothers-in-arms making no concessions as to past loyalty.

  Vorotaev was growing impatient, the decision finally taken out of his hands as the order came down from his superior to bypass the town and press on towards the south. While a convenient solution to Vorotaev’s obsession with Astrakhan, it was a significant change to the operational plan. However, the total destruction of General Morozov’s forces remained a key objective, the fate of those still in Narimanov left to a holding force of a rifle company and the overdue air support.

  Yet it was almost an hour wasted and Vorotaev soon found himself beginning to interfere more than he should, even urging the lead platoon to take unnecessary risks. At least he could argue his impatience was justified: the highway was empty, the civilian population hiding in their homes and, despite everyone’s fears, the road hadn’t been mined, an infrequent IED the only real danger.

  If anything, the biggest hindrance to reaching Astrakhan lay with the data and communication network, it suffering from irregular bouts of interference, and Vorotaev decided to move the command post earlier than he’d anticipated, willing to give up the convenience of a prepared position in the hope of securing a more stable signal.

  By the time they reached the first alternate command site south of Narimanov, it was almost ten o’clock. While the security of the command post remained a priority, the flat and often featureless terrain offered little in the way of concealment, and the HQ unit was left with little option but to make do with a dry hollow and some camouflage netting.

  The tactical overlay remained an encouraging sea of blue, helicopter gunships finally on their way to solve the problem of Narimanov, the sturgeon having to take their chances. There was still nothing on the spetsnaz assault and Vorotaev flicked the display to check on the 3rd Battalion’s thrust east from Elista; it took just seconds to see a detailed record of their progress, Vorotaev noting with a relieved smile that they were well behind schedule and still ninety kilometres short of Astrakhan, land mines already taking out two vehicles with six men killed. The 2nd Battalion east of the Volga had made steady progress early on, snipers and anti-tank mines becoming more of a problem as they got closer to the city; ten dead, one tank destroyed; thirty-five kilometres to go.

  Vorotaev’s lead platoon had no such difficulties; resistance remained light, just small-arms fire, IEDs and the occasional booby-trapped vehicle blocking the road. Eighteen kilometres to Astrakhan – the race to the city was as good as won…

  Yet Vorotaev was starting to get nervous, sensing that maybe it was all just a little too easy and the leading units were moving far faster than anyone had anticipated. General Morozov could well have decided that it was best to pull back to the south or east but would he really ignore the excellent defensive options offered by the city’s streets and buildings? Special Forces would now be blocking the highway south to Azerbaijan and Georgia; which left the road east to Kazakhstan… Vorotaev knew that would be the worst of various bad options for Morozov: it might not be that far to safety but a single bridge destroyed would turn the highway into a death trap. And what incentive could Morozov possibly offer to persuade the Kazakhs to help him?

  Vorotaev sat and studied the video feed from the lead platoon, before swapping to each of the Battalion’s other units. The interference now only affected a lone company, it presently starting the process of clearing out any remaining defenders from Narimanov. Of their ten networked cameras, just one from an IFV produced a discernible image, it never showing anything more than a bland building and an empty street; that shouldn’t have been a problem but for some reason it just seemed wrong, it almost too mundane to be real.

  Although none of the data showed any cause for concern, Vorotaev suddenly felt isolated from what was happening to north and south. Stuck in a small insulated metal box, he was totally reliant on what the C4ISR system deigned to show him: the data said that the mopping up operation in Narimanov and the drive into Astrakhan were both proceeding perfectly but for all Vorotaev knew the whole Battalion could have driven into the Volga or be drinking champagne in the centre of Astrakhan.

>   Narimanov was his immediate concern and Vorotaev ignored the protocols to key the radio, wanting to get in personal touch with the company commander, needing to put his own mind at ease. The radio link merely crackled with static, no voice contact possible; Vorotaev muttered in exasperation, the officer beside him swapping to the tactical satellite system.

  Whatever alternative they tried, Vorotaev was unable to physically speak to or hear any of the units directly under his command. And the problem seemed to be restricted purely to the 1st Battalion, a key part of the command network either inoperative or being deliberately jammed.

  Their only line-of-sight vantage point was atop the command vehicle, it still less than ten kilometres to the horizon, Narimanov another five kilometres further on. Vorotaev flicked views to the outside camera, twisting it around to point towards the town, eyes instantly drawn to the smoke rising in the far distance. It was barely twenty minutes since the long-delayed air attack had ended and perhaps it would be foolish to expect anything less; it certainly fitted in neatly with what the tactical overlay revealed, one platoon already closing in on the shipyard complex.

  Despite the evidence to the contrary, Vorotaev still sensed something was very wrong and he tried not to over-react, unwilling to let those in Moscow think that he wasn’t fully in control. He ignored the increasing frustration of those around him to focus once more on the lead platoon, the data display showing it approaching the northern suburbs of Astrakhan and still well ahead of schedule, enemy resistance light to non-existent. The electronic intelligence overlay showed the defence line some six kilometres from the city centre; air units had already been vectored in to provide support and there was nothing from any of the platoon or company commanders to suggest that anything was amiss.

  Vorotaev swapped back to Narimanov then to the air operations centre, trying to get a video feed from one of the helicopters or a drone and ready to order an overflight of the town; again all he got was static. Abruptly the display froze, Vorotaev unable to contact anyone yet still able to see the tactical map. The atmosphere in the command vehicle was one of confusion, the normal sense of purpose temporarily on hold.

  For fifteen minutes they struggled to bring the system back online, a screen flickering every now and again before becoming blank, back-up units equally unresponsive. Vorotaev couldn’t even control his emotions let alone a potential battle to take Astrakhan, his hopes of impressing his superiors all but forgotten. One option was to reboot the whole system, Vorotaev desperate enough to order it done.

  Frustrated, Vorotaev flung off his headset and struggled to his feet, needing to clear his mind and work out what to do once the technology co-operated. If he could anticipate the likely status of his various fighting units then just maybe he could retrieve the situation; if he was unlucky, one of his senior officers would have already used his initiative to make his name and earn Moscow’s respect, Vorotaev no doubt condemned as incompetent.

  Even as he stepped out into the cold air of a cloudless morning, there was a shouted cry of alarm from away to his left. Vorotaev instinctively turned to look and an instant later he was buffeted by the shock wave from an explosion, his body carelessly cast aside, a rolling wave of pain engulfing him as he crashed into the hard earth. There was a second, then a third explosion, Vorotaev cringing down as a blast of hot air surged over and around him.

  Slowly he staggered to his feet, eyes focusing to see both command vehicles on fire; several bodies lay burnt and mangled alongside, the rattle of gunfire indicating that someone at least was trying to fight back.

  Vorotaev just stood and stared at the chaotic scene, a vague sense of understanding gradually emerging from the fog that clogged his brain. Some of Morozov’s forces hadn’t chosen to retreat, cleverly managing to circumvent the forces heading down the Caspian Highway while remaining hidden from the helicopter gunships protecting the right flank. He couldn’t yet grasp the how but the consequences were right here in front of him and with it the end of Vorotaev’s military career, his only defence an over-reliance on the vagaries of technology.

  The command post might be an easy target but knocking it out wouldn’t alter the eventual outcome, and the generals in Moscow or the frontline commanders would be quick to re-establish control. That was the theory, one part of Vorotaev’s mind able to wonder whether this might be something more ambitious than just a spoiling mission. Support for Morozov had resurfaced in Volgograd of late and if he could actually make it to the city, then he might just survive. The gunships could still stop him – someone just needed to point them in the opposite direction.
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