The phone rang, waking Denis Menkov from a deep sleep. He looked at the clock: 3:45a.m. He snatched up the receiver; “Yes?” he barked.
“Now, Denis, is that any way to greet your leader?”
Menkov recognised the voice of Yuri Ansonov, his former KGB mentor and now President of the Russian Federation.
“Ah,” he said, “Good morning.”
“Good morning, Denis. We have some work to do today. We need to make a visit to Donetsk - a private visit. Or at least, as private as I can make it. The car will pick you up in twenty minutes. We are going from the private section of Domodedovo. I don’t want to be seen, so we will have no military with us - just you and me. Like the old days, huh?” Ansonov laughed and rang off.
‘Like the old days…..’, Menkov mused, as he sat back in the Mercedes heading for the airport. He’d fallen under the spell of Ansonov many years ago, before the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Menkov had been the sophisticated element of Ansonov’s goon squad that had elevated him right into the heart of the Kremlin. Then, when Ansonov had made his grab for power, Menkov had been the man who made problems disappear. In return, Ansonov, once secure in his position, had effectively gifted the Russian aluminium industry to his acolyte. True, the Englishman Victor Lansky had had to be taken out of the equation and the Malenkov brothers shifted sideways, but for a decade and a half now, Menkov had been the undisputed king of business.
The effect of all that had been to put Menkov right at the top of the money tree - not quite up there with his boss, of course, who had fingers in every pie. Still, from KGB policeman under the Soviets to one of the richest men in the world, it had been a stellar rise.
But why Donetsk? There was to all intents and purposes a war going on in Ukraine, even if Ansonov was not prepared to admit it. True, the Donbass region, of which Donetsk is the major city, was pretty clearly controlled by interests friendly towards Russia, but nevertheless a visit to a war zone where accusations of Russian military involvement had been flying around for years seemed on the surface to be a little unwise. And privately? That suggested that the objective was commercial, not political. Menkov had no illusions; Ansonov was President, and his political position and significance in global affairs were very important to him, but parallel to that were the (mostly) carefully concealed business operations. A private trip suggested that Ansonov had sniffed out some sort of opportunity in Donetsk which would be dumped in the lap of Menkov to act as a custodian of his boss’s wealth. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time, nor probably the last, but there were - as far as he knew - no aluminium assets in the Donbass, so it didn’t look as though this was a Russo-European Metals day.
The car was braking to a halt as they reached the airport. The driver spoke briefly to the security guard on the gate, and they accelerated off to the private aviation terminal. There, the car avoided the buildings and came to a halt directly at the steps to an unmarked white Gulfstream V. At the top of the stairway, he was checked for concealed weapons by a large security man, who then stepped aside to let him through the door onto the aircraft.
The front cabin was small - just four seats, one of them already occupied by a guard; the man who had searched Menkov gestured for him to go through the door at the rear of the cabin, and then swung into his own seat opposite his colleague. Menkov pushed open the door, and went through into the main cabin, where Ansonov was already seated in one of the four heavily upholstered seats, a cup of coffee on the table in front of him. Menkov sat down opposite him, and greeted his boss.
Ansonov smiled. “Welcome, Denis, to our magical mystery tour to Ukraine.” The door at the rear of the cabin opened, and a stewardess stepped out and offered coffee to Menkov. He nodded his acceptance, and looked quizzically at Ansonov. “Yes, it certainly seems like a magical mystery tour. For sure, it doesn’t seem to me to be rational to be heading off to a war zone without any sort of military protection. What are we doing this for?”
“For a deal, of course. There’s the prospect of a great deal of money, but, of course, I can’t be seen to be involved. It should be a perfect fit for Russo-European, though, so once again, you will have to be the guardian of my interests, until such time as we can both remove ourselves from this daily grind and enjoy the fruits of our many years of labour.”
The aircraft had begun moving as he was speaking, and then, turning on to the runway, the pilot opened the throttles and the little craft rose into the dark night sky.
“Before we start to talk about what we’re going to do today, though, let’s have some breakfast.” Ansonov half turned in his seat and rapped on the galley door.
Five hundred miles to the south, the war zone was pretty quiet. Soldiers, militias, armed civilians, all lay uncomfortably in their improvised sleeping spaces; to the outsider, it would have been nigh on impossible to distinguish the Ukrainian government troops, the insurgents, the Russians - although of course Ansonov’s government emphatically denied any official presence. But they were all armed to the teeth; everyone clutched one of the ubiquitous AK-47s, and surface-to-air missile batteries were scattered across the uninspiring countryside of the Donbass.
The Gulfstream ran on south, the eight hundred-odd kilometres of the flight scheduled to take just over an hour and twenty minutes. On board, Ansonov began outlining to Menkov the detail of the deal he was anticipating concluding in Donetsk. Menkov quickly grasped the attraction, and the methods? Well, he’d been at Ansonov’s side for a long time, and not much surprised him. After all, his own position - and fortune - hadn’t come about by Harvard Business School tactics.
Just over an hour after take-off, the pilot came on the speakers in the cabin to tell the passengers that they were about to start their descent into Donetsk. The engine note changed as he reduced power, and the nose of the aircraft dipped.
Thirty-five thousand feet below, a flicker showed up on the screen of one of the SAM batteries. The observer scratched his head, and pointed it out to his battery commander. He scratched his head as well, because there had been no warning of any aircraft movements expected over their sector this morning. They watched the progress of the flight, which didn’t deviate from its course. It was heading directly to pass overhead.
One of the features of such nasty little local wars is that they have a particular way of brutalising the participants; possibly inevitable when it is all so close to home. Anyway, whatever the motivation, the battery commander was clear. He had not been told to expect any aircraft; so, the logic of his mind went, this must be hostile. He checked that the missile was locked on to the target, and, shrugging his shoulders, pressed the button.
The flash on the ground was invisible to the crew of the aircraft; the missile team on the ground watched the red streak rise into the dawn sky, then saw the blast of flame as it took out its target. The missile battery commander didn’t know it at this stage, but he had just vapourised the President of the Russian Federation, one of the richest industrialists in the world, two pilots, two security guards and a stewardess. He tucked in to his breakfast, unaware of the storm that would descend on him…….
Read Chapter Two tomorrow!!!!!!!!