The Rule Of The People, p.5Christopher Read
Chapter 2 – Saturday, November 12th
Vladivostok, Russia – 19:17 Local Time; 09:17 UTC
The city was effectively under siege, no flights in or out, train and ferry services cancelled, access restricted via road. In the Soviet era, Vladivostok had been a closed city, not even shown on Russian maps, but that had all changed in 1992, the city pulling in investment as it worked to become the capital of Russia’s Far East. Its geographic position also ensured it remained a key resource for the military and even though the main submarine base was two thousand kilometres to the north-east on the Kamchatka Peninsula, Vladivostok took pride in being the home port and headquarters of Russia’s Pacific Fleet.
If a region could be considered loyal to one person, then Russia’s Far East was now firmly in President Golubeva’s camp, agents of the Internal Security Agency, the FSB, invariably regarded with suspicion and mistrust. In practice, the FSB’s struggle against Golubeva was now left to a few diehards like Markova and Nikolai, others within the FSB’s Lubyanka Headquarters forced for their own safety to keep a low profile. The sole public opposition to the authority of the President came from General Igor Morozov, her former Minister of Defence and Chief of the General Staff. On the run in Astrakhan Oblast with his back to the Caucasus Mountains, he still had many allies in the military and Golubeva’s hold on power was not yet totally secure.
Left to his own devices Nikolai would have long since joined up with General Morozov, loyalty to Markova the only thing holding him back. Yet their presence in Vladivostok was essentially at the General’s bidding and Russia’s border region was clearly hiding more than its fair share of secrets. The journey south from Khabarovsk had taken the two of them three days, one driving the other sleeping, hours spent going nowhere while yet another army convoy was waved past. The city of Ussuriysk a hundred kilometres from Vladivostok had been the worst, choked with traffic, thousands of Russian troops heading to the Songacha River and the Chinese border.
But there had been no invasion, Markova fooled like an amateur into believing it was all for real. Not that China could relax just yet, the troops still there and ready to launch an attack should the Kremlin decide it was in Russia’s best interests. Markova presumed that also depended upon how America in turn acted, its new President having to tread a difficult path between public expectations and not involving the U.S. in a drawn-out conflict – a war against China would hardly likely to be swift, even with Russia’s help.
The people of Vladivostok knew all of this, some of its 700,000 citizens desperate to leave, many stoically assuming they would be safe. The city was just 56 kilometres from the border, easily within artillery range and a high-value target for any enemy. With some twenty percent of its population ethnic Chinese, there was also genuine concern as the possibility of terrorist attacks, the various nationalist groups conspicuously more vociferous of late.
Markova and Nikolai had reached Vladivostok late that morning, the final three kilometres to the port area quicker by foot than car. The city centre was a chaotic shambles, traffic barely moving, shops being boarded up, some of them already empty of stock as people prepared for the worst, panic buying anything considered useful – even electrical goods. The police and military were on every street corner, weapons prominently displayed, and every now and again an air-raid siren would wail out its warning before stuttering into silence, the city’s systems being tested just in case.
The port area directly adjacent to Golden Horn Bay was equally hectic but in a far more organised and productive way. The berths were divided up between the fishing fleet, commercial shipping and Russia’s Pacific Fleet, the three elements seemingly jostling for position with a missile cruiser moored almost within shouting distance of a foreign freighter or an ageing trawler. Security was relatively tight, civilian traffic banned from several roads, including the main thoroughfare of the Korabelnaya Embankment, armed guards manning temporary checkpoints around Pacific Fleet Headquarters.
Markova and Nikolai were stopped twice and questioned at length, IDs scrutinised and scanned. Their documents were genuine, just with false details, compliments of the FSB. Adding her new name to the list of accredited journalists had also proved astute, the military as yet unwilling to detain reporters, especially those supposedly sanctioned by Moscow.
The ships from the Pacific Fleet presently in port looked as if they would soon be on their way, the naval facility too tempting a target; the dock area around the merchant vessels was similarly a hive of activity, captains desperate to get their ships ready for sea, no-one wanting to risk the port being attacked or blockaded.
And the threat wasn’t just from China: North Korea was only 130 kilometres to the south-west, its relationship with Russia always difficult, neither really trusting the other. China was the only ally North Korea could normally rely on, despite the occasional spat, and if countries were forced to pick sides, then few could doubt where North Korea’s allegiance would lie.
To the outside world, Russia was merely responding to provocation from its neighbour, Beijing unquestionably responsible for the murder of seventy-nine of Russia’s citizens. For Markova, it was far more complex than the media portrayed, with President Golubeva definitely playing some devious political game. Quite how Fleet Headquarters was involved was unclear, a link to events in the South China Sea as yet unproven; Markova didn’t even know whether she should be focusing on one rogue officer or if the conspiracy was far wider. Consequently, her next move was based on hope rather than any expectation of success, a vain attempt to persuade Nikolai that the drive south had actually been worthwhile.
Markova felt she had little choice but to rely upon gossip and rumour, desperate to search out the unusual and unexpected, that one whisper that might help to point them in the right direction. For once Nikolai was keen to make a start, the two of them trawling the waterfront bars and clubs, every overheard comment or intrusive question adding to the obvious risks, the whole city wary of strangers.
It was a task Nikolai excelled at and Markova was at best a silent spectator, at worst an obstacle to dragging out something interesting. By midnight they were both drunk, several dozen drinks bought to help loosen tongues, friends for life made and then immediately scorned.
Despite Nikolai’s social skills and the FSB’s roubles, nothing useful had been learnt, their money and time effectively wasted; Russia might well be a country bursting with state secrets but not apparently in Vladivostok.
Eastern United States. – 11:24 Local Time; 16:24 UTC
Jensen settled into his usual seat in the Cabinet Room, hand-written notes on the table in front of him, waiting patiently while the others worked out where best to sit. True to his word, Deangelo had made relatively few changes to the Cabinet, two Republicans adding a bipartisan feel; although that was one less than Obama’s first Cabinet, it was still a brave move and a sign that Deangelo’s politics were barely left of centre. The fact he had managed to pull it all together in less than thirty-six hours was an impressive achievement, the only contentious appointment that of Dick Thorn as Secretary of Defence.
The first meeting of the full Cabinet was set for early Monday; today, Saturday or not, it was the turn of the President’s inner circle to listen and then have their say, no-one quite sure how much influence they might have. Including Jensen, there were only six of them in total, each occupant of the White House having a differing view as to the precise makeup and number of their chief advisers; Ronald Reagan had even picked a group of business friends. President Deangelo was rather more traditional, although two of the six were still not actually members of the new Cabinet.
Directly opposite sat Dick Thorn, his Democrat credentials on hold of late and if he were to propose anything less than a massive retaliatory strike against the Chinese mainland, then Jensen would be surprised. Next came the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), Admiral Adams an equally forthright if mellower version of the Secretary of Defence. The Attorney Gener
Jensen’s rough analysis suggested that he and Woodward would be the only voices likely to urge caution. The President had come to Office on the back of a promise to stand up to China and defend the sovereignty of America’s allies, specifically the Philippines, and he would undoubtedly want to honour that commitment – to do anything less would be tantamount to political suicide. There might still be a Democrat in the White House but the flavour of the administration was becoming more Republican by the day.
Ryan Burgess and Dick Thorn still had to be officially confirmed in their respective roles and, unlike for a Vice-President, a Cabinet appointment simply needed a majority vote in the Senate. The ‘lame duck’ sessions of Congress which occurred immediately following the Midterms were generally used to finalise unfinished legislation with those members not returning in January simply going through the motions or – worse still – choosing to be obstinate. While Burgess could well coast through the committee hearings and subsequent vote, getting Thorn’s nomination passed by the Senate before Christmas was likely to be impossible; he had his supporters but his orchestration of the protests in the National Mall was seen by many in Congress as a form of blackmail and he could expect a hard time, even from the Democrats, and an ‘unfavourable’ recommendation was virtually certain. The next session in January would be equally difficult, the Senate’s new Republican majority doubtless readying themselves to do everything they could to discredit Thorn and belittle his reputation.
Alternatively, Deangelo could choose to bypass Congress and use his executive powers; the present session would soon be on a two week break either side of Thanksgiving before adjourning in early December, and at either point Deangelo would be able to make ‘recess appointments’. It wasn’t quite a permanent solution, only lasting until the end of the next session, but it was a trick all presidents adopted to counter an unpopular or dubious nomination, and Dick Thorn could easily fit into either category.
Deangelo also needed to nominate a Vice-President and whoever it was would face a similarly difficult and tortuous passage through Congress, the timescale for the hearings likely to be closer to the four months for Nelson Rockefeller than the single day it had taken Bob Deangelo. Several Republicans were already decrying the haste with which Deangelo had been confirmed and any goodwill seemed to have been exhausted even before a single name had been hinted at. Whatever their standing or reputation, every aspect of Deangelo’s nominee would be scrutinised for some anomaly or exaggeration, many in Congress determined to make amends for their previous lack of circumspection.
Jensen and the others stood respectfully as the President entered, Deangelo immediately waving them to sit back down. This first meeting might well set the tone for potentially the next two years and Jensen was desperate for it not to turn into a five-versus-one battle with him invariably on the losing side.
Deangelo was surprisingly relaxed, starting with the mundane and keeping the discussion moving, prepared to cut people off if they diverged from the point at issue, and it took barely an hour to move on to the more contentious problem of China.
“Admiral,” said Deangelo, glancing across the table at the CJCS, “I think it would help to have a brief summary of the situation in the South China Sea, and what military options are presently available should it be considered appropriate.”
Admiral Adams nodded his thanks, keen to make sure a suitable military response was agreed as soon as possible. “China has continued to build up its forces in the area, with more of the Spratly Group at risk. Having taken West York, Thitu and Spratly Island itself, the North Danger Reef is an obvious next target: occupied to the north-east by the Philippines and the south-west by Vietnam, its capture would give China a good part of the northern edge of the Spratly Group. Purely in terms of naval power, Vietnam and the Philippines are outnumbered ten-to-one, and without U.S. support they stand no chance of stopping China.”
Adams paused for a sip of water, allowing time for his key message to sink in. He had no doubt that China would keep snatching one barren reef at a time and it wasn’t just about the area’s natural resources; a third of the world’s shipping passed close to the Spratly Islands and China was determined to control the transition of each and every vessel. That desire could only be thwarted by the power of the U.S. Navy, Adams unwilling to simply sit back and watch Beijing grab whatever it wanted.
Adams continued, “Reinforcements from Japan including the Ronald Reagan Strike Group and Task Force 76 will be in position north-west of Manila by early tomorrow evening; the Gerald Ford is also moving south and is presently north-east of the Paracel Islands. We will consequently be able to mount an effective air or missile attack on any Chinese facility within or bordering the South China Sea by 02:00 Monday; 15:00 local time. That will still give China another thirteen hours before the deadline to withdraw expires – perhaps then the Politburo will sit up and take notice.”
Adams paused for breath and the President was quick to interrupt. “Relocating ships from Japan hasn’t created a different problem? We certainly can’t guarantee North Korea won’t side with China if it comes to a fight.”
Dick Thorn responded before Adams, “We’re reinforcing with units from San Diego and elsewhere, Mr President; at the same time taking the opportunity to ensure we can respond to any new threat.” It was polite and to the point, Jensen sensing nothing of the previous tension between the two men. As Secretary of Defence, Thorn was second only to the President in his authority over America’s military; as Secretary of State, he had often been far from the power base of Washington and with little chance to directly influence domestic events or military policy – now he would rarely be more than one time zone away.
With Deangelo’s concerns seemingly answered, Adams continued with his review. “Task Force 76 will increase the total marine complement to over three thousand and the retaking of any of the Spratly Islands should be a relatively simple task; however, in order to keep our own casualties to an absolute minimum we would need to use overwhelming force – that would make it very costly for the defenders.”
“The Vietnamese and Philippine losses,” interrupted Secretary of State Burgess, “do we have any figures?”
There was an awkward silence, Burgess almost seeming to suggest that China should be paid back in kind for what it had set in motion.
“Thirty-three killed on Thitu Island,” replied Thorn. “Six on West York. Vietnam has given no official figure for Spratly Island, but we estimate somewhere between fifty and a hundred.”
Burgess didn’t pursue it and Admiral Adams brought his update to a close by voicing the Joint Chiefs’ view, if not quite a recommendation. “Any military response will inevitably involve Chinese casualties; individually, the islands and reefs are all low-value targets, some relatively well defended, some not – a few almost too easy. Sometimes we need to think about the delivery as well as the message itself.”
“Thank you, Admiral.” Deangelo pursed his lips thoughtfully, the others waiting whilst he worked out where next to direct the discussion. “Do we have anything more on the search for this submarine that sank the USS Milius?”
“Nothing I’m afraid, Sir,” responded Adams. “It could easily take several more days, especially if the weather is poor. There’s also been a Chinese frigate sniffing around which hasn’t helped.”
“Very well,” said Deangelo, his
Adams didn’t need any further encouragement, the specifics and relative pros and cons of four increasingly punitive choices gone through in detail, the number of U.S. casualties varying from zero to potentially as many as a hundred. It quickly became clear that the first option was a non-starter, dismissed out of hand by the President as too weak a response; Jensen started to promote the second alternative, ably supported by Ellen Ravich and to some extent Woodward. Adams, Burgess and Thorn all argued for something far more dramatic, emphasising that China would only see sense once America proved its superiority.
The discussion broadened, China’s potential response debated, the American public’s blessing – or otherwise – of concern but not a deciding factor. There was never any suggestion that it would come down to a vote, Deangelo merely seeking a range of opinions before he made the final decision.
To Jensen’s relief and Thorn’s silent disapproval, the President chose the second of the Joint Chiefs’ proposals, China to be given an additional few hours grace just in case there was a belated change of heart. Yet no-one around the table really believed the Politburo would accede to America’s demands. Deangelo had staked his reputation on standing up to China and Beijing had set in motion a vicious vendetta from which neither side could easily escape with honour intact.
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