A coup in the Kremlin brings hardliners to power, men determined to take back territories lost with the fall of the Soviet Union. Billions of euros are flowing into Moscow from an unknown source, fueling a secret military buildup.
Director Elizabeth Harker sends the Project team to the Balkans, where the Russian-backed president of Macedonia is suppressing a popular movement threatening to become a revolution. It looks like Moscow is meddling once again in Central Europe. But the reality is not what it appears to be.
Nick, Selena and the team are caught up in a devious plot that takes the world to the brink of nuclear war. Who is funding Moscow's militaristic adventures and why? Can the team find a way to stop a confrontation between Russia and the United States before it starts? The stakes for Nick, Selena, Elizabeth Harker and the world have never been higher. If they fail, civilization will be destroyed.
Failure is not an option...
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Three men walked through the blowing snow toward the domed Senate building in the heart of the Kremlin. The snow was hard, mixed with tiny bits of ice, the cold breath of another Russian winter tightening its grip. The footprints of the three men were the only marks in the pristine white that blanketed the courtyard. Two wore the signature great coats and high peaked hats of generals in the Russian army. The third was a slim civilian, dwarfed by the bulk of his two companions, wearing a dark overcoat and a fedora. It was late, the night lit by floodlights that shone through the falling snow and illuminated the colonnaded front of the Senate building.
Here in the inner sanctum of Russia's seat of power, guards were posted no matter what the weather. At the approach of the trio they snapped to rigid attention, then rushed to open the tall doors leading into the building. The three men stepped into the warmth and waited as the doors closed behind them. The vast reception foyer was deserted. At this time of night no one was about.
Colonel General Evgeni Kuznetsov stamped snow from his high gleaming boots. Both generals opened their heavy coats. Both carried Makarov PMM pistols in shiny black leather holsters.
"Let's get this over with." Kuznetsov's voice was rough, rasped by years of cheap tobacco and vodka.
"He may yet see reason," the civilian said.
Kuznetsov snorted in contempt. "You know better than that, Vladimir."
Vladimir Orlov unbuttoned his coat and brushed snow from the shoulders. He took off his hat and slapped it against his trousers. Orlov's blonde hair was thin, brushed across his oval skull. He had a blade of a nose and thinly compressed lips. His eyes were cold blue, cold like the Siberian steppes.
"You have the papers?" Orlov asked.
"I've got them here."
It was the third man who spoke, General Pyotr Krupin. Krupin commanded the Western Military District, including Moscow. A large part of the Russian army was under his direct orders. He withdrew a flat leather binder from under his coat. "I don't think he will sign."
"The legalities must be observed," Orlov said. "We will give him the opportunity. It's up to him how this turns out. What about Vysotsky's men?"
Krupin looked at his watch. "A Zaslon unit will arrive in precisely eight minutes."
"Good. Whatever Gorovsky decides will determine their role."
In another part of the building, not far from where the three men stood talking, Russian Federation President Leonid Gorovsky leaned back in the leather chair behind his desk and watched the snow blowing past the window of his office. Gorovsky was a large, unpleasant looking man, a throwback to the days when Russian politicians were anything but telegenic. People who saw him for the first time were reminded of Nikita Khrushchev, a man from peasant stock like himself. Gorovsky looked like someone who would be at home in a working man's bar, the kind of man who would as soon hit you with a bottle as offer you a drink from it.
As with most things in Russia, looks were deceiving. It was true that Gorovsky had no qualms about using brute force to get what he wanted. It was a mistake to dismiss him as just another powerful bully. The president's crude exterior hid a shrewd and calculating mind, with a realistic appreciation of global politics and the ongoing dance of power between the great nations. Russia's enormous nuclear arsenal ensured a place in the dance but it couldn't guarantee that the music would be to his liking. At the moment his mind was sounding a discordant note he could no longer ignore.
A new Cold War had begun with Western attempts to extend NATO. It had escalated with events in the Ukraine. Now the temperature was rapidly dropping beyond Gorovsky's comfort zone.
The Western position was hardening. Gorovsky knew that the American President, James Rice, was not afraid to assert military power if needed. So far Rice had been cautious but he was under intense pressure to stop future Russian expansion with an aggressive response. American hawks in the Pentagon and the Congress wanted a war, something to fill the coffers of the military-industrial complex that had taken control of the American government.
Gorovsky had his own problems with hawks. He'd gained backing from the military and the oligarchy with promises to restore Russian pride and respect in the eyes of the world. So far it had gone well, although Western sanctions were beginning to hurt. The ruble had suffered but plans were well underway to establish a new standard of world currency that would boost Russia's economy. The port at Crimea was secured, one of the most vulnerable chinks in the Russian armor. Soon the entire east of the Ukraine would be under Russian control.
It was a satisfactory beginning. The problem was that the hawks wanted more. They saw NATO as a toothless tiger and thought much of the territory of the old Soviet Union could be brought back into the fold, by force if needed. They believed the Americans were exhausted from their failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In some ways Gorovsky sympathized with their view. The American military was overextended. Their economy was on the verge of collapse, driven to the edge by the greed of the bankers and their European cronies. Politically, the Americans were a house divided. In the opinion of the hawks, Washington could ill afford to risk war because of greater Russian expansion. They thought that now was the time to reclaim Russian dominance in Eastern Europe, beginning with the Ukraine.
All of it.
Gorovsky knew better. An invasion of the Ukraine on the scale needed to subdue it would mean war with the Americans, a war that could become nuclear. A war no one could win. The problem was that Gorovsky's generals believed such a war could be won. They were lost in the same myth that had destroyed Hitler and Napoleon, the myth of invulnerability. Gorovsky knew there were counterparts to his general staff in the Pentagon who believed in their own illusions of invincibility. It was never a good thing when myth collided with reality.
He heard voices outside the door to his office. He glanced at the clock. It was too late for normal business. The unease that had been nagging at him all day turned into a sense of alarm.
Gorovsky had not ascended to the pinnacle of Russian power by being naïve. He was a survivor. He eased open a drawer in his desk. It contained his pistol, the Makarov he'd carried when he was an agent in the old KGB.
The door opened and it was as if his mind had conjured up the very people he'd been thinking of, the men who wanted war. Generals Kuznetsov and Krupin had been arguing for an expanded military effort for weeks. The sight of his Prime Minister in his black fedora only confirmed Gorovsky's suspicions that Orlov had been conspiring behind his back.
"Vladimir. Generals. Is there a military crisis? I cannot think of another reason why you would be here at this hour."
Krupin took out the leather binder he'd brought and placed it on Gorovsky's desk.
"You should read this before we talk any further."
Gorovsky noted the lack of respect and looked at Orlov. Cold blue eyes stared back, expressionless, flat as a snake's. Gorovsky opened the binder and scanned the single sheet of paper inside. He looked at the three men, then took a cigarette from a silver case that had once belonged to Czar Nicholas. He reached into the open drawer with the pistol and took out a box of matches. The contents of the drawer were not visible from where the three men stood. Gorovsky lit the cigarette and drew an ashtray toward him. He put the matches back in the drawer. He kept his hand in the drawer and gripped the pistol.
"This is a letter of resignation," he said. "Do you really expect me to sign it?"
"Leonid, it is the best way."
Orlov's voice was calm, persuasive. It was the voice he used when he wanted to convince someone to do what he wanted.
"You have lost the confidence of the military and of the oligarchs. Your caution is beginning to look like fear and fear is not something we can afford to show to our enemies."
"My caution is only prudence. We are not ready for another military adventure at this time. We need two more years at least."
"No one is willing to wait two more years," Krupin said. "In two years the Americans will have strengthened NATO to a point where it will no longer be easy to defeat them. They will become a serious threat. Washington is negotiating missile sites in the Balkans as we speak. They cannot be allowed to ring the Rodina with their weapons."
Gorovsky shook his head, like a teacher correcting a wayward student.
"You are fools if you believe we can take on the Americans. Remember your history. Japan had the same idea for almost the same reasons. They saw the U.S. as weak, divided, unwilling to wage war. Look what happened."
"We are not Japan and this is not 1941," Orlov said. "It would be best to sign the paper and retire gracefully to the countryside. Go, Leonid. Enjoy your Dacha on the Black Sea."
Gorovsky felt the cold metal of the Makarov in his hand.
"Or you will resign involuntarily. Perhaps for reasons of ill health. It's really too bad about your heart condition."
"My heart is fine," Gorovsky said, "but yours soon won't be."
He drew the pistol from the drawer. Krupin had been watching Gorovsky's hands. His own pistol was out of the holster in a blur. He fired as Gorovsky raised the Makarov. The bullet took the president in the chest. Gorovsky's gun fired as he fell back in his chair and Kuznetsov shouted in pain. Orlov took a pistol from under his coat and fired three quick shots into Gorovsky before he could recover.
Blood poured out of Gorovsky's mouth and he fell forward onto the carpet. He twitched and lay still. A faint odor of spent powder drifted through the room.
Kuznetsov was holding his upper arm. Dark blood seeped between his fingers.
"How bad?" Krupin said.
"It's nothing. A superficial wound."
There was a noise outside. Four hard looking men in civilian clothes came into the office. Their clothes couldn't hide their cropped hair and military look. They were Zaslon, the secretive Spetsnaz unit commanded by General Alexei Vysotsky, one of the deputy directors of the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki, Russia's foreign intelligence service. Vysotsky had served with Orlov in the days of the KGB.
The leader of the four men looked down at the body of the Russian president, then at Orlov. With Gorovsky's death, Orlov was now the acting President of the Russian Federation and Supreme Commander of Russia's military forces. He saluted.
"Captain Ilya Yezhov, sir. What are your orders?"
"President Gorovsky has had a sudden hemorrhage and heart attack."
Orlov gave Yezhov a calculating look. "This unfortunate death requires discretion. You understand?"
"Of course, sir."
"You are now promoted to Major, effective immediately. Please arrange for our late president's body to be prepared for a state funeral. Someone will need to replace this carpet."
Yezhov saluted again and barked out a few short commands. The other three men cut away the bloodstained carpet and wrapped Gorovsky's body in it.
Orlov watched them carry the former president out the door and smiled.
The game had begun.