Colonel Zukhov leaned back in his burlap and aluminum folding chair, steepled his fingers and rocked ever-so-slightly as he stared at the smartphone sitting on the folding table that functioned as his desk.

He was a Colonel in the Spetsnaz, but had only been given command of a commando company hastily attached to the regiment just before the invasion. He was nearing retirement and had spend the past several years training younger officers how to lead elite soldiers with honor and deadly efficiency. “Both,” he would say, “are comrades – to lose the one is to abandon the other.” Now, his retirement had been put on hold as he took orders from younger men of inferior rank, not because they were better leaders than he (what an absurd proposition) but because there weren’t enough men to give him a proper regiment befitting his rank. Still, Russia was short on officers, especially in the middle ranks, and Old Guard warriors such as himself were in great demand. None of that made Colonel Zukhov forget for even a moment that he had been called into service to serve inferior men who should have had their commissions stripped from them the moment he arrived. Rampant corruption amongst the officers selling fuel and quartermasters selling everything else – mostly to the rank and file of the regiment’s soldiers who needed it to survive – had made his stomach turn. When he complained to the General, a man of lost honor who was most corrupt of all, the man said, “This is the way of the Russian Army today, Colonel. We’re not invading anybody anyway. The President said so. If we were going to battle, the Ministry of Defense would have started throwing obsolete officers in prison just to make the point. Men such as yourself, perhaps.”

That had been the first and last time Colonel Zukhov had reported any problem of any kind to anybody. When his troops carried weapons with empty chambers for lack of ammunition, he said nothing to the Major commanding the battalion tactical group to which Zukhov’s company was now attached. When there was no fuel for their infantry fighting vehicles, he did not complain to the Colonel commanding his regiment. And when his men went hungry for two days for lack of food, he did not complain to the General commanding the division.

Instead, he bought ammunition, stole fuel from the very people his corrupt comrades had sold it to and foraged in local towns to keep his troops fed. He didn’t take a single bribe. He did not take a single ruble in exchange for anything the Army had provided him and his troops. For this, he was shunned and would have been shot in the dark one night except for a simple fact: Colonel Zukhov and his men were the only soldiers within ten kilometers who actually knew how to kill the enemy effectively and efficiently. One day, and soon, he knew that he would have to protect the very vermin that had soiled the honor of the Russian flag.

But looking at the smartphone, he wasn’t sure if he could keep quiet about what he had seen. He had just finished watching the video and although personally enraged at the horrific treatment of civilian women it depicted, he was more incensed at the dishonor it could bring to Russia. That the imbecile Putin had started a civil war thirty years too late, a war that Colonel Zukhov knew they couldn’t win, didn’t matter as much as the long lineage of honor still flowing through the veins of Russia’s longest-standing families. Like his. Colonel Zukhov knew he would never see it, but Russia was still finding its way in the world, even if stumbling blindly towards a destiny she didn’t understand. To get there, she had to survive. Which meant men like himself had to stand up and fight for her.

But this atrocity sitting on his desk – in the age of global everything, Colonel Zukhov knew that if the world saw it, they would rally to Ukraine and Russia’s honor would be smothered by the brutality of a few stupid men whom the army had failed to teach even the must rudimentary concept of good order and discipline. You didn’t win wars in the twenty-first century by showing the world the worst you had to offer. It didn’t matter that most soldiers, and certainly all of those under Zukhov’s command, were disciplined and honorable. All people would see was what he had just watched. And they would forever condemn Russia because of it.

Colonel Zukhov snapped his fingers and pointed at his communications clerk sitting at a small table with a radio set and his coffee cup. “Get me the commander of Dugan two five.”

The operator nodded and hunched over his radio, tuning the frequency, numbers flickering across the LCD display. “Dugan two five, Voron.” He stared at the radio. “Dugan two five, Voron.” He turned to Colonel Zukhov and shook his head.

“Try the other platoons.”

“Dugan krasny odin Voron. Dugan krasny dva Voron. Dugan krasny tri Voron.” The operator held a finger to his headphones. Again, he turned around and shook his head.

“Now I wonder,” sadi Colonel Zukhov, “Why none of those lieutenants are responding.” Colonel Zukhov studied the private still standing in front of him at rigid attention. He should have consulted with is XO, but the private was smarter than most of the other men around him and he had a core of honor, even if it was naïve and untested. So it was that Private Rechemkov had become the Colonel’s unofficial XO in matters of consultation. “What do you think?”

“I would say that they’ve been cut off in battle, but I just received that message. They’re in town. Safe. Drunk. I don’t know, sir. But obviously nobody is in charge down there.”

“Have you shown this to anybody else?”

“No, sir.” The proper title of address would have been “comrade Colonel,” a holdover from the Soviet Army. But Colonel Zukhov preferred detachment from any form of civilian politics, even if they were just imbued in a single word.

“Have you told anybody about this?”

“No sir.”

Colonel Zukhov leaned forward, his fingers still steepled. He glanced between the two men. “And we’re going to keep it that way. Nobody is to hear of this. Not the Colonel. Not the General. Not your friends. Not whatever girl in town you’re dancing with. Nobody. You understand?”

The two men responded simultaneously. “Yes sir.”

Colonel Zukhov stood up and looked at the map posted on wooden easel behind him. He ran his fingers down the road to the village the regiment was supposed to take and hold prior to the final push on Kiev. “Private Rechemkov, go round up the lieutenants. I want them here in five minutes.”

“Yes sir. What should I tell them this is about?”

“We’re going down there to find out why these barbarians have been allowed to disgrace the uniform. Then we’re going to arrest whoever is in charge. But mostly we’re going down there to find that goddamn phone before the rest of the world finds out what’s happened. So you tell the lieutenants that we’re moving out. We’re going to save the motherland.”

“And what of the Colonel and the General, sir? We’ll need orders.”

Colonel Zukhov smiled at his protégé. “Let them try and stop me.”

©2022 Michael J Lawrence

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