Editor’s note: This short story explores what war in Europe against an increasingly aggressive Russia might look like with a dramatically reduced US commitment to NATO.
The major general had forged his 31-year career in the British Army by sheer will, be it through SAS selection, stultifying desk jobs, Iraq, Afghanistan, a PhD in Russian literature, and much more. But just getting his fork from the plate to his mouth required more strength than he’d ever had. Two peas, nested in cold mashed potatoes, perched upon the tines. The room’s sole candle cast a long shadow across the tabletop, the mobile phone flipped screen-down next to an untouched, perfectly creased paper napkin. An inch off the plate was as far as he could get. It had been 18 hours since he’d last eaten but there was just no room in his stomach for food anymore. The profound need to prevail would sustain him until this was all over.
“Sir, you have a few more minutes,” said his aide, an American Army colonel, Shane Williams. “I can see if the kitchen can make something else, have them send it back.”
Maj. Gen. Hugh Fessenden shook his sizeable head and stood up, brushing non-existent crumbs from his jeans and thick brown sweater. He clutched his phone in his bony right hand. The totem of his anxiety. He stood a head shorter than Williams, yet the American looked at him with real admiration. The Cotswold countryside English pub, the Eagle Inn, was older than the United States. In another hundred years, this would be seen as a historic place and moment. Fessenden was the man making it happen. Williams was one of the few American uniformed military advisors still working with NATO since the United States pulled all of its land forces out of Europe two years ago. He would have a front-row seat to history, which was why he had joined the military more than 20 years ago.
History indeed was being made: the first Russian test of NATO’s Article V modification since a series of Washington-led treaty modifications in 2019 surgically removed the alliance’s United States military backbone. This followed a White House ultimatum for the entire alliance to meet NATO’s 2-percent of GDP spending guideline by January 2018 or America would immediately downgrade its commitment. America remained a NATO member, but it removed all its forward-based forces from Europe and only pledged logistic, intelligence, and technical support during an Article V crisis. No direct military intervention. The tradeoff for Europe’s capitals? NATO member states no longer felt obligated to meet their GDP target on defense spending. The few who were committed to the target consisted of those nations in the Kremlin’s crosshairs: the Baltic nations, Poland, and Britain. “Less spending, more security” went the campaign tagline, but it was fueled by a reawakened peace movement on social media and by Russian information operations. Six months later, a series of vicious attacks on ethnic Russians in Kaliningrad, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia prompted the formation of local self-protection brigades, which were in reality clandestine Russian contractors and a handful of Spetsnaz advisers, to set up heavily armed safe zones and enclaves in the region. Soon after that, Russia established a no-fly zone for non-Russian military aircraft over the Baltic states. A rapid virtual Russian takeover of telecommunications nodes in all three countries locked out opposition voices. Local efforts at armed resistance to the Russian incursions were distorted into a narrative of a NATO-led anti-Russian cleansing campaign in the Baltic region, including a series of GRU false-flag mass-casualty IED attacks in Tallinn and Vilnius blamed on MI6 operatives.
While the Asia-Pacific’s vast distances elevated denial of information to a form of strategic dominance, Europe’s population density gave information and cyber warfare its own character. Rather than planning to shut down or blind an enemy, the battle was for influence: to crank up messaging and narrative combat through alternative nodes and networks. A population’s confidence in their governments, and in their own future, ebbed and flowed accordingly.
Then seven days ago, a series of Russian distributed denial-of-service and data-deleting worm attacks on British government networks and banks interrupted state pension payments and forced National Health Service caregivers to work offline. Simultaneously, a massive data dump at Wikileaks and FreedomFiles led GCHQ to conclude that the entire MoD email system was compromised. Hostageware attacks, a variation on bitcoin exploits holding data for ransom, targeted municipal power and water utilities near major British bases, threatening to destroy critical infrastructure for soldiers’ families if their units deployed against Russia.
Directed to come up with a military plan, as chief of staff, Fessenden immediately moved most of his senior leaders off base while leaving a skeleton crew behind to maintain an electronic presence that indicated they were struggling to come up with a response. Those staying back included the corps commander, a lieutenant general, which only served to deepen the subterfuge. Fessenden hadn’t sent an email since, a respite he should have enjoyed. But he was too consumed with how to respond, which was why he was in a pub planning Britain’s most audacious military intelligence operation since MINCEMEAT deceived Germany about plans to invade Sicily.
“What’s the latest BUZZREP out of Vilnius?” asked Fessenden. He adjusted the Glock at his hip.
“Russian social media feeds are pushing positive for the last three hours, especially in the visual domain. They’re working a collaborator narrative, building the arc, and what we expect is they’ll shift by tomorrow night and crank the fear again. There’s been a series of IED attacks in Klaipeda,” said Williams. He tapped his tablet. “I can show you the model.”
“No need,” said Fessenden. He ran a hand through his thick gray hair.
“Sir,” said Williams. “TF Red is on standby. There’s a clear pipe set up, when you’re ready.” None of the defense networks could be trusted. Rather than fight it out in that corner of cyberspace, Fessenden decided to hide his command and control amongst the noise using a mix of couriers, coded messages and misdirection. An array of one-time virtual private networks tunneled through Europe’s commercial bandwidth. Social media accounts for misdirection were essential, even at home.
“We’re chumming already, near Baker Barracks and London?” Fessenden asked. The pub’s heavy curtains in its back room let no light out or in. Any sense of the outside world’s progress was reduced to the tiny 6-inch screen on the portal in his hand. It was like something C.S. Lewis would have enjoyed toying with, such powerful technology and irony, thought Fessenden. You can see everything and know nothing.
“It’s a long list, and I have to say, sir, it’s going to be convincing. There’s going to be some shock waves back home in Washington, for sure,” said Williams. “I’ve let the Agency liaison know where things are.” Fessenden bobbed his head silently again and seemed to broaden his narrow shoulders ever slightly. He did that when he was content, which was rare.
This was a complex operation for a complex war. The chumming—propagating social media feeds with fake images and accounts of British Army desertions by soldiers who refused to support any military intervention in the Baltics—was just one unprecedented element. Task Forces Red and Kant were another. The pub was 40 miles from the nearest military base in Gloucestershire but this dimly lit pub was the locus for the military response. Fessenden’s room in the back was the only one not crammed with soldiers and spies in civilian clothes pecking away at laptops or waving their hands around with VR headsets attached.
“Updates on TF Kant?”
Williams looked at the floor. He knew Fessenden’s goddaughter, a Special Reconnaissance Regiment lieutenant, was part of the six-person detachment inserted 48 hours ago into Lithuania. TF Kant’s mission was to map and disrupt the new Russian command and control networks as well as the telecommunications nodes used to turn the Lithuanian population against NATO. It was slow, dangerous work with each operator working alone and dodging Russian special forces and, as of eight hours ago, two Russian infantry brigades protecting the “Russian Corridor”—the E28 road—now directly connecting Kaliningrad to Belarus and Russian territory via Lithuania. This whole war, or situation, or flashpoint, or whatever the right word was, had to end soon or else.
“We’re getting more targets still, sir,” said Williams. “Every hour. But . . . Lieutenant Mills is late. Now, we’ve seen that when — ”
“Thank you, Shane. Let’s proceed.” He took a long moment to glance at his watch, a battered Rolex Submariner, while he allowed himself a few seconds to worry about his goddaughter. Was she even alive?
Then Fessenden pulled out his phone and turned on a VPN.
He opened up the Snapchat app and selected an image that Williams just sent to him via their Bluetooth connection. It looked like a picture of an orange tabby kitten, leaping after a purple butterfly, but with the right software filter it would reveal the execute orders for Operation UNDERBELLY.
“Crank those chains! We’ve never had a Challenger up in here. Tight! Don’t make me get my whip too!” shouted Senior Airman Andy Gutierrez. He looked from the British Army Challenger tank to the US Air Force EC-17W’s aircraft commander nearby who gave him a severe look. “Ma’am,” he nodded. “Sorry.” Nerves. Adrenaline. “Don’t fuck up my aircraft, Gutierrez,” she shot back. “Not now.”
The Air Force had six “Crimson Nickel” EC-17s, which were not publicly acknowledged due to their electronic warfare airspace-penetration capabilities. From the outside the plane didn’t look much different than any other C-17 in the fleet; it could hide in plain sight at allied airports and airfields around the world—an overlooked aspect of “stealth” in the social media era.
What was inside mattered most. The plane had power and space to work with, unlike sleeker jets, which allowed it to carry more up-to-date network attack systems and cyber/EW countermeasures because the hardware could be rolled on and off for each mission. To help with low-level flight and dodging air defense networks, as well as shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, the plane was also fitted with dozens of limpet-like cameras and sensors. These fed into the EC-17’s battle management system, which was the same one used on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. What that meant for Gutierrez and the pilots was they all wore the exact same half-million-dollar F-35 fighter pilot helmet that let them “look” through the plane. In the air, his view gave him the sense he was flying through the air like a superhero, which helped him spot threats. On the ground it was more mundane but equally critical: from inside the aircraft he could make sure they didn’t hit anything. They had yet to run over a fire extinguisher, he was proud to say.
The minty stim gum he chewed worked pretty well with the Copenhagen he also had tucked in his cheek, he had to admit. He was buzzing down to his fingernails. Soon they’d all be airborne. But not just yet. Tying down this beast was like something out of a fantasy novel, chaining up a sleeping dragon with steel as thick as his arm. Twenty-five chains so far. It was savage. Fitting.
This whole mission, what little he had been told about it, sounded less and less like simple “logistical support” for NATO elements. A one-way low-level flight from RAF Lakenheath into southern Europe with a 128,644-pound tank (as loadmaster it was his job to know) in the cargo hold, along with the 16 British and American commandos who wouldn’t speak to him. US Air Force F-22 and RAF F-35 escorts all the way. There were two black armored Range Rovers crammed in as well, with a pair of silver Kawasaki enduro bikes. The Brit armor guys were cool, at least, once he stopped asking questions about why they had painted their Challenger “Pride and Joy” a dark shade of green he didn’t immediately recognize. But he had a gut feeling about it, which was reinforced by the fact that his plane and the three other EC-17s nearby had their tail numbers painted over an hour ago.
The battered cane in her right hand was heavier than it looked, because it was not as much for walking as it was a cudgel, a weapon for killing if needed. Ludmilla Petrovka was indeed old enough to need a cane, 72, and today she looked much older. Felt much older, sitting in the damp cold at eight in the evening with a rumpled shopping bag between her sagging body and the wet bus bench. This was the mission, though, and for her 52-year career she always worried whether she was up to it. Tonight was no different. Only five feet tall, she had a short stride, a gait made awkward by her oversized feet. Of all the women she’d come up with in the GRU during the Cold War, she was the most decorated. She was a watcher. For days, if needed, as she had sat in similar spots, a park in Poland, a playground in Sweden, a shipyard café in Ukraine, a library in Venezuela, a parking lot in Canada, a bus stop in England, and many, many more. Never in America, a lone regret for Petrovka.
She had a boss who was an avid fly fisherman, a normally meek general who would not shut up about how he tied his flies, which bored her. But when he talked of reading the river, not just the surface but currents and eddies and rocks beneath, she found him bearable because she thought of her work the same way. She had nearly married him.
She did not know what the target looked like tonight, not exactly, but she knew they would be coming soon. The target’s mission was known, it was obvious, and that was enough. Across from Petrovka was a two-story brick building with windows only on the second floor. A wide steel door was the only entrance, the kind of solidity that did not evoke security but simple utility. It had its own beauty, Petrovka thought, after spending so many hours with it. A massive gray cooling unit sat on the roof, which brought the building up to the height of its adjoining neighbors. It was a network hub for Teo LT, Lithuania’s biggest Internet services player. In this neighborhood of Vilnius, there was no more strategically important target. It might be a four-man detachment, perhaps British SAS, come to blow it up in the dark of night. Crude, but it would probably work, especially if they used nanoplex charges or what she thought would be the best option, thermite bombs to melt all the switches and routers inside. The Russian irregular and Spetsnaz forces did not need tanks to occupy this country; they had a story and the people in this city were so wracked with fear they were more than happy to tell it to themselves. No bombs to smash flat this beautiful city. The Lithuanians were doing it to themselves, taking down their country brick by brick by holding their children close and their smartphones closer.
If she looked behind her, she would see the tower of Gediminas Castle, which was ravaged when the Russians came 400 years ago and by every invader since. But she didn’t. She knew her history. And her mission, which always came first.
There. “Tiger, Panther. Target approaching. Designating Kilo1,” she murmured into the bone-conducting mic she wore. From her purse she pulled out a black cube, a camera, and began recording.
A woman in her late 20s approached carefully. She wore fashionable, thick black glasses and the kind of clothes that went with a job that let you buy a BMW before you were 30 and take winter vacations to ski in Austria with the boyfriend you would never marry. But she moved like she was very tired, and her laptop backpack, while clearly expensive, was perhaps just too big for somebody who clearly would never bring her lunch from home to work.
It was when Lt. Wendy Mills pulled out her phone, maybe 15 paces short of the building’s entrance, that Petrovka knew. She just felt it. “Confirming target Kilo1, stand by for intercept,” Petrovka said. Attuned to the street, she could hear the racing engines of the two arriving SUVs, packed with Spetsnaz operators. They could kill the target. She could kill her, even right now. But she was more valuable alive.
The cellophane wrapper crinkled as Fessenden popped another cinnamon fireball into his mouth, his third this hour. It was the only sound in the room. He looked at his watch: 2209.
“General, it’s confirmed. ALEXEI is down. Aircraft destroyed. We lost all souls on board,” said Col. Williams. “Indication so far is loss of control on takeoff.”
With the loss of one of the EC-17s and its cargo of the Challenger tank, the Range Rovers, motorbikes, and special operations forces heavy armor team (SOFHAT), Fessenden wondered to himself whether UNDERBELLY could still succeed. Could it have ever?
“The other three?” asked Fessenden.
“DMITRI, IVAN and FYODOR are leaving UK airspace,” said Williams, referring to the call signs for the other three EC-17s. “There’s still time for a recall order, sir.”
“Continue mission,” said Fessenden. “Harvest what footage we can for the chum.” That was all he said. All he could say. He returned to the pub’s rear room to be alone again. It was a down-to-the-bones operation already, counting on audacity and ingenuity over redundancy and practice. If they survived the rest of the flight, the EC-17s would land in about five hours, each setting down on their respective stretches of highway in Crimea and Ukraine just long enough to let the SOFHAT elements race off into the dark night to begin raising hell. Now there would only be three. It would have to be enough.
Senior Airman Gutierrez cranked his harness down tighter, just to keep from shaking. He felt like he was going to throw up. The last EC-17 to depart was lost within minutes after their steep four-aircraft takeoff. Using the “look through” capability of his helmet, he played back the crash for a third time. The four-aircraft takeoff had each EC-17 spaced at 30-second intervals. The last aircraft, call sign ALEXEI, would face the worst wake turbulence, fatally in this instance. The final EC-17 had climbed to about 2,000 feet before tipping over on to its right side. The pilot then corrected, but too much, which began a sickening oscillation and uncontrolled descent into the ground.
The aircraft commander’s voice in his headset snapped him out of this fog: “Gutierrez, notify pax of the situation with ALEXEI.”
Gutierrez found the blue chem light, which belonged to the American mission commander, a man in his late 40s with a handlebar mustache and long hair. He was going over a map on a tablet with a balding British SAS trooper in his late 20s who wore a green chem light. “Gentlemen, we lost an aircraft, ALEXEI, on takeoff. Wake turbulence, it looks like, and IVAN is Charlie Mike,” said Gutierrez. Both nodded at him and looked at each other, locking eyes for a long couple seconds, then cut their audio to Gutierrez’s helmet as they returned to discussing the map. He extended them his tin of Copenhagen as a gesture of solidarity, but they ignored him like he’d never said a thing.
He lingered, for a moment, and studied the two. Both wore uniforms that were clearly not standard British or US military issue; the camouflage pattern looked Russian but they wore no unit insignia or flags. They had Russian weapons: AKM rifles carried close to their bodies on slings. Each wore a matching plate-vest armor rig, with the small clear dome-like bump of body cameras on the breastplate and another on the collar armor facing to the rear. The British were indeed SAS, which is what the tank crew told him. They assumed the Americans were Navy SEALs. But Gutierrez knew different. The Americans were CIA contractors; he knew this because he had flown them from Joint Base Andrews and while they said little, he had understood enough. The paperwork for the trans-Atlantic hop said it was in support of an urgent State Department resupply mission to support the US Embassy in London. Ha. From the long hair, sunburns and loose way they walked it was clear they were former special mission unit types, he thought. It was on the flight over that he realized why this was technically a CIA mission—to get around the US legal restrictions on direct combat operations on behalf of NATO. It started as a British general’s idea, rumor had it, with buy-in all the way up to the White House. Working for the Agency was a first for Gutierrez, something to cherish when he had time. If he ever had time.
“Panther, Tiger. Intercepting Kilo1 in 10 seconds,” said the voice in Ludmilla Petrovka’s earpiece. The two Mercedes SUVs abruptly rounded the corner, muscling their weight down the narrow street at highway speeds. Careful, she thought, careful. Being so still, so long, the violence of action, any action, was jarring. She removed a small Beretta pistol from her bag and kept it concealed under her purse. Her job was to keep watching, and filming, doing nothing but watching everything.
The target had to have heard the SUVs by now, but she had yet to look up from her phone. Unbelievable. So absorbed. Who did she think she could text for help?
Then a thought occurred to Petrovka: was this the wrong person? She was so certain and in her entire career the times when she was wrong could be counted on one hand.
A buzzing, growing to an irritating whine, made Petrovka snap her eyes to a point a few feet above her head. She saw nothing. The throaty growl of the SUVs cut out, and they braked hard with tires chirping as the antilock systems struggled to bring more than two tons of steel to rest. The whining grew louder still. What?
There, a small black drone no bigger than a bible zipped around from behind her. And then paused directly in front of her, a faint blue light pulsing. She squinted at it, still unsure what it was doing here. She saw the target, Kilo1, shoulder open the door to the network hub and disappear into the maw of the building’s entranceway.
The doors flung open on the two SUVs and at that moment, as the drone inched closer to her, Petrovka knew. She raised her cane up to swat the quadcopter away but it was too late.
“Contact, Tiger! Watch — ”
The drone exploded before she could finish her warning, killing Petrovka and shattering the bench she sat on. Two more drones zipped down to street level and detonated directly in front of the building’s entrance, and unlike the other drone, sprayed a fan of shrapnel at waist level that hit every single Spetsnaz commando as they prepared to breach the building entrance.
A fourth drone was perched on the lip of the building as a sentry. As Lt. Mills worked her way through the city for the past 30 hours, the four drones tracked her progress. They bounded from rooftop to rooftop, block to block, with short flights of just a few seconds. Following an algorithm, and occasional commands from Mills, the semiautonomous quadcopters took turns providing overwatch. At each stop, if they detected a suitable power source, they paused to recharge using a conductive power device on their underside or charge one another. While they did not carry offensive guns or missiles, they themselves were flying IEDs, each carrying a two-pound nanoplex charge that the drone itself could adjust the blast radius for depending on the type of target it detected.
Inside the building, Mills moved carefully to a room whose location she had committed to memory. She put on a headlamp and plugged a black device about the size of a shoebox into one of the routers. She squatted down and stared hard at the device’s power indicator, willing it to go from red to green. Her suppressed Sig Sauer pistol was next to her on the ground now too, along with two mini grenades. She rechecked that she still had three more magazines accessible.
Using her phone, she checked the video feed from the drone. The street was still empty. Her stomach knotted at the thought of what was on the line. Once uploaded, the box’s “payload” would work its way into the Russian mobile networks by targeting router and switching firmware, which would in turn reset them to a series of covert and established NATO nodes throughout Europe and in the UK.
Two things would happen next: NATO-produced spoofed Russian social media would come online, which would be crucial for the next step of UNDERBELLY. None of this was known to Mills as she crouched and tended to the box. In less than an hour, a standoff-range cyber offensive would begin targeting the air defense networks in Kaliningrad. The attack would involve eight British and Dutch F-35s with electronic warfare and cyber strike packages using four Norwegian Hugin autonomous unmanned vehicles surfacing off the Baltic coast as relay nodes to direct the cyber effects against nearby Russian air- and sea-defense networks. A volley of cruise missiles from two Astute-class British submarines would target the Russian S-400s and crater runways at Smolensk. Polish armored infantry and special forces would push north into Kaliningrad, cutting off the E28 highway access corridor to Russia.
Mills’s phone vibrated and showed her a picture of the street. The two SUVs remained out front, doors open, with the wounded Spetsnaz having taken cover further back. The drone’s sensor feed revealed two more Spetsnaz-filled SUVs slowly pulling up, lights off.
“Shit, shit, shit,” she said out loud. Then the light turned green. She exhaled and began urgently tapping on the phone. Opening Snapchat, she quickly selected an image from her store of photos, a green dale in Ireland, and sent it off into the ether. Mills then rolled a smoke grenade toward the door and ordered the remaining drone to detonate at the entrance, before dashing for an exit at the back of the building.
The British commando’s exo-suit kept powering off. At least, that’s what it looked like to Gutierrez who watched him freeze, stiff-legged, atop the turret of the Challenger tank like a shop-front mannequin. Then the soldier moved fluidly before locking up again. He finally settled into one of the special racks that had been bolted to the turret sides for him and his three other exo-suit-wearing mates. A quadcopter zipped overhead and hovered, before darting off up the road into the darkness. The EC-17 was empty, its cargo floor littered with chains and straps. Gutierrez was frantically trying to clean it all up as the aircraft prepared to take off again. They had been on this patch of the H05 highway just north of Sums’ke for just over 15 minutes for the engine-running offload.
He paused wrangling the chains as the pilot brought the engines back to forward idle and prepared the aircraft for a static max-effort takeoff. A last look as the SOFHAT team’s two motorbikes and one of the Range Rovers raced up the road after the drone. They would set up the roadblock at the far end of the “runway” the EC-17 would be racing down in less than a minute.
Whether the two other EC-17 aircraft made it to their respective landing sites, highways to the west and north, was a mystery to Gutierrez. But not for long. This clandestine mission was about to become very public by design. He knew that within minutes, the ground elements of task unit IVAN would be racing off into the darkness to sow chaos in central Crimea just like DMITRI and FYODR were elsewhere on the peninsula. For all the secrecy, silence, and darkness until now, from here on out their every move would be covered in real-time by the drones, bodycams, and other imagery they transmitted on commercial satellite communications networks. The imagery would be stunning, certain to create mayhem through doubt. The deepest doubt where it mattered most—in Russia—was about who they were, what were they doing. Those moments of uncertainty would be essential on Russia’s southern flank as the NATO operation against Kaliningrad commenced.
Three tanks, thought Gutierrez. Enough? He started doing some quick math on the estimated range of a Challenger. Freed of its cargo, the jet felt like it was springing forward as it began to take off. Through the gap in the closing ramp he caught a last glimpse with his night vision goggles of all four exo-suit soldiers on the tank turret’s benches. A drone hovered just a few feet above them, faintly visible as it filmed the Challenger lumbering off into the night. He would never see these men again; their exfil plans a mystery to him. But the tanks, Gutierrez knew, were staying behind. If the plan worked, the accounting over the loss of a few 30-year-old hulls would just be a footnote of history.
Col. Williams jumped out of his chair, nearly dropping his phone. The image of the green dale in Ireland lit up the dark room. Wendy was OK. He smiled and breathed a sigh of relief, then checked himself. He scrolled further through another series of Snapchat feeds, holding his breath. Letting out a whoop, he pushed through the cramped dining area of the pub, staring at his screen. He nearly tripped over a technician who was fiddling with a series of connectors underneath a makeshift desk made out of a bathroom stall door set atop two chairs.
He charged into the back room at the Eagle Inn, where Maj. Gen. Fessenden was hunched over a table. The Glock lay next to a pile of cellophane wrappers. Williams was about to speak, but pulled up short. The metallic rasp of the fork on the plate made him pause. Fessenden turned, a green glow from the picture on his smartphone screen illuminating a faint smile. He was eating. Finally.
“For TF Red, DMITRI, IVAN, and FYODOR are underway, sir. Check out the feeds. BUZZREP already showing tactical effects when you look at bandwidth spikes, even in Kaliningrad,” said Williams. “Now, we have eyes on the Crimea exfil sites, and we’re clear so far.” He took another breath, and told Fessenden what he clearly already knew. “And Wendy, General, she’s checked in. We’re still unsure on two of the other TF Kant operators, however.”
Fessenden nodded and stood up to shake Williams’s hand. “We’ve got our shot, don’t we?” said Fessenden. “We only get one. Let’s take it.”