Guardians

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Chapter 29

Argus Consulting

Washington D.C.

“According to our friends over at Fort Meade, there’s been a recent uptick in communications inside GRU Directorate Thirteen,” Russell said as Elisabeth handed Jorgenson and Candito folders containing the papers meant to accompany the briefing.

“Given the recent death of Directorate chief General Viktor Shadrin in a plane crash, the questions about Shadrin’s involvement in shady dealings, and the recent ‘incident’ at Dunba, it is plausible that this is security-related.

“Still, there’s nothing solid there, not even usefully specific claims. As to the crash – which left no survivors – the official investigation has concluded that it was an accident, and even if we can wonder about that assessment, we have no actual evidence to the contrary.”

Russell leaned back in his seat. “What is more interesting is that, according to a few of the communications the NSA managed to decrypt, the Directorate is concerned about losing a certain ‘strategic item.’ We think the term most likely refers to the ellipton we have been hearing so much about –”

Jorgenson’s increased interest was evident in the way he sat up. This was what he had been waiting for.

“– this being the only item possessing strategic significance under the Directorate’s control that we know of.

“The references to the loss of the item are ambiguous enough to be understood in a number of different ways; one possible interpretation is that they are concerned about losing it to another Russian intelligence or security agency. As we’re all aware, there has been considerable reorganization of the Soviet security services, and the questionable future of quite a few important Russian facilities only contributes to this.

“However, it may also mean that they have lost physical custody of the item to an unauthorized, outside party.” Which was, of course, what Jorgenson was waiting to hear about.

“Any suspects?” Jorgenson demanded.

“None to go by the communications intercepted so far,” Russell conceded. “But we do know something about Shadrin’s activities during his last day.” He turned off the lights and moved to the back of the room, then switched on the slide projector. The first slide put a file photo of Shadrin on the screen at the opposite end of the room.

“While the Russian government eventually reported Shadrin’s death in a plane crash, it never identified the actual aircraft. However, we have determined that he was flying in a Russian Air Force plane under the control of the GRU.” With another click he switched slides, and the picture on the screen was now of the wreckage from that crash.

“These are the remains of the plane, southeast of Moscow, in Ryazan Oblast.” He then switched to a close-up focusing on the tail, which was fortunately intact. “Note the tail code,” he said. “It seems that this exact plane was on the runway of Ugransky Air Force Base shortly before the crash.”

Russell presented the satellite photo in which the plane had been spotted at Ugransky, and then a closer-in version of the same image in which they could both more clearly see the make of the plane – “An Antonov-72S, the ‘C’ version used for executive transport” – and that the code on its tail matched the one visible in the picture of the wreckage.

“I haven’t heard of Ugransky,” Candito said. “According to this, it’s just a standard frontline aviation regiment – a fighter base?”

“That’s correct, the 175th – nothing really relevant to the program that Shadrin heads,” Russell confirmed. “But Ugransky’s interesting nonetheless, because it’s under the command of General Andrei Ivanovich Stepanenkov.

“There’s a big black market in arms all across Eastern Europe. Dealers are crawling all over the place and snapping up huge quantities of product cheaply from officers in ex-Communist states. Stepanenkov’s turned his base into a very large, very well-organized center for the traffic, which now serves as a conduit for a sizable percentage of the weapons illegally leaving Russia.

“Check out these pictures of the base.” Russell put up a different, somewhat zoomed-out photo of the facility, showing its grounds in their entirety.

The base was organized around a single runway, well over two kilometers long in this case. The runway sprouted three aprons, extending obliquely away from it in alternating directions, north, south, north. Each of the regiment’s component squadrons had one of those aprons to itself, with its hangars and maintenance buildings beside it, and its fighters parked in pairs alongside the ramp.

At the eastern end of the runway was the headquarters building, at the western end a pair of control towers. Around one of the towers was a number of smaller, lower buildings, one of which was surrounded by a wall topped with barbed wire – probably the nuclear bunker. That made it the engineering and maintenance tower. The other was probably the traffic control tower, a guess confirmed by the proximity of four parked aircraft, probably the base’s duty-alert aircraft. Those were kept fully fueled and armed, pilots ready to be in the air in five minutes.

“MiG-29s,” Jorgenson said, referring to the parked aircraft.

“Yes,” Russell confirmed. “It’s very much a high-priority, front-line facility.”

All that was pretty standard for a Russian fighter regiment base. Still, there were quite a few buildings which didn’t fit into the usual picture, most of them built well away from the runway. They looked like warehouses.

Candito asked about them.

“They’re not standard on bases like this, and not in older photos of the facility,” Russell confirmed. “My guess is Stepanenkov’s thrown them up to store the weapons passing through the base.”

“They don’t look particularly new, though,” Elisabeth added. “We’re guessing he had them stripped from another military compound and moved all the way here. But they’re perfectly adequate, better than just amassing a big dump in the open. The extra storage space would also make it easier to handle the incoming and outgoing aircraft, too – we’ve seen Russian civil transports and even foreign aircraft there – by letting him keep on hand a bigger stock of fuel and equipment for servicing them.”

There were also several vehicle concentrations. Some were probably being used to support the base’s enlarged activities, like those trucks opposite the headquarters building. They’d heard the General had arranged the vehicles for some of the arms pick-ups, and it wouldn’t have surprised him in the least to learn Stepanenkov had built up a trucking business using army property. Among them there was also a cement mixer, an indication of plans for still additional construction.

“Improving on the base, remaking it to suit his own purposes,” Candito surmised. “Given the investment he’s made it seems he’s planning on holding on to this command.”

“Or at least, keeping it under friendly control,” Russell added. “That it stays open, and passes to a cooperative officer. Maybe he’s even grooming someone to take it over.”

“Still, that’s a pretty big assumption. He could be out a lot of cash soon if they assign it to someone else. Or if it gets shut down.”

“It’s a good bet this base will stay operational, though,” Russell said. “It’s a modern facility housing a modern squadron near the capital. They’re not going to get treated like a third-string unit flying a bunch of old MiG-21s.

“Besides, I just don’t see Stepanenkov getting his walking papers. We’re seeing big cuts to the forces, but flag officers aren’t the easiest people to get rid of. And the way things are going in the country, the government’s not going to want to alienate them any more than it can possibly avoid doing. We all remember last August.”

Everyone nodded. Personally, Russell didn’t think that would prove to have been the last gasp of the hard-liners. And given the pain Yeltsin’s economic reforms were inflicting on the country, he didn’t think the Russian public could be counted on to rally to the man’s side a second time. Yes, he’d be careful how he treated his generals.

“Stepanenkov’s also very well-connected. He’s got friends everywhere, which is how he ended up doing what he is now. The conventional view’s that he’s just a very capable man on the make, but others have speculated about his fronting for somebody else, somebody bigger and more powerful. GRU officers trying to fill up their coffers according to one version of the story; ‘red directors’ trying to keep the old military-industrial complex going according to another. That kind of thing’s hearsay at this point, but it’s telling all the same.”

“This is all helped by the value of the 175th as a showpiece operation,” Elisabeth added. “Ugransky’s actually considered an attractive assignment for someone in the Russian armed forces. The accommodations there are better than at most other postings – the toilets actually work, the shelves in the shops are stocked. Stepanenkov also runs a clean operation with regard to hazing, bullying, petty crime – all the things that people in the Russian military have had to put up with since there was a Russian military.

“Additionally, the pilots and ground crew actually helping Stepanenkov with the operation, the training, the maintenance, the cargo hauling – they get paid, and in hard currency. It’s spare change next to what the General and his top people are making, of course, but it’s a substantial supplement to their incomes, especially with inflation the way it is.

“All of that’s enough to make most people not want to rock the boat; frankly, to be afraid of doing anything that will simply get them reassigned to another unit, though he’d probably go a lot further than that if anyone made trouble. It also helps to keep him in the good graces of people who matter, and an important reminder that sleazebag or not, Stepanenkov’s not stupid.”

Russell thought America’s CEOs could learn a lot from him in fact, but decided it would be impolitic to crack that particular joke.

“As far as we can tell, though, he hasn’t had any contact with this area of Soviet activity, besides this one possible meeting with Shadrin, which wasn’t necessarily about the ellipton or anything else. Still, if he was doing something questionable, especially if he was thinking about selling off Directorate Thirteen material, it’s at least plausible Stepanenkov was part of it.”

“All right,” Jorgenson said, “you’ve convinced me. We need to know more about the man, much more, and what he knows about the ellipton first and foremost. Everything else goes on the backburner until further notice, though I fully expect that I will be immediately alerted if another equally promising lead turns up.

“Does anyone have something to add on that point?”

No one did.

“I will be expecting updates on the state of this investigation hourly, on the hour, from this point forward. Now go to it.”

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