20 Years of Leading Analysis

Keep a Lid on Crimea

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Crimea is the most serious potential conflict in postrevolutionary Ukraine. The crisis could lead to a hot war in Ukraine and dramatically increase tensions between Russia and the West—no effort should be spared to avert this scenario.
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The mounting conflict over the status of the autonomous republic of Crimea deserves an urgent, careful response. Of all the potential conflicts in postrevolutionary Ukraine, none is more important than a serious crisis in Crimea, which could lead to a hot war in Ukraine and dramatically increase tensions between Russia and the West.

Events are moving quickly.

Earlier today, demonstrators waving Russian flags broke through police lines at the local parliament building in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, and the leadership of parliament announced plans for Crimea to hold a referendum in May on upgrading its autonomous status within Ukraine. For the second day, dueling groups of demonstrators in front of parliament are chanting slogans in favor of and against secession. That sets the region on a collision course with the newly formed government in Kyiv and could lead to the de facto breakup of Ukraine.

How did this happen?

Over the weekend, a large crowd in Sevastopol, home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, had installed a local businessman and Russian citizen as the city’s new mayor. Soon thereafter, local political leaders explicitly rejected the authority of the new leadership in Kyiv.

Suggestions by Russian parliamentarians to distribute passports to co-ethnics in the region and a surprise large-scale military drill ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday, February 26, immediately evoked memories of Russian actions leading up to the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008. Barricades and checkpoints are also being set up in various parts of the peninsula by local self-defense forces, and Russian military vehicles have been spotted on the roads outside their bases, according to Western journalists.

The provisional authorities in Kyiv led by acting President Oleksandr Turchinov are not shying away from confrontation. Today Turchinov said that any further Russian military moves outside their bases in the region would be considered acts of “aggression.” Controversial actions by the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada immediately after the collapse of the government of Viktor Yanukovych increased tensions. The parliament’s moves included the revocation of a controversial language law that had allowed local governments in the areas where Russian was widely spoken to enshrine it as an official language on par with Ukrainian. Meanwhile, ultranationalist groups such as Svoboda (Freedom) and Praviy Sektor (Right Sector) that took the lead in the street fighting in Kyiv are now assuming prominent roles in state security bodies, triggering alarms in Moscow and beyond.

Crimea is a very special—and delicate—case. It is Ukraine’s only autonomous republic, though its autonomy was sharply curtailed in the mid-1990s. Its population of nearly 2 million is about 60 percent Russian, many of whom are retired Russian military personnel. Russia’s naval base in Sevastopol is home to some 15,000 active-duty servicemen, and much of the city essentially lives off of the base. About 12 percent of Crimeans are Tatars, who are generally loyal to Kyiv due to their tragic history. (They were persecuted and repatriated by Stalin for alleged disloyalty at the end of World War II and were only able to return to Crimea at the very end of the Soviet period.) Throughout independent Ukraine’s twenty-plus-year history, Crimea’s residents, only 24 percent of whom are ethnic Ukrainians, have seen themselves as a breed apart from the Ukrainian mainstream.

It would be a surprise if Russia moved to annex the region outright. Although Putin has maintained his silence on the situation in Ukraine since this past weekend, events on the ground are challenging Ukraine’s territorial integrity and raising the possibility that Russian troops will become directly involved in pulling the country apart.

Putin’s hand could be forced (and conflict could come to the region inadvertently) depending on how the new authorities in Kyiv respond to recent moves by the local population. One can easily imagine a harsh Russian response if Kyiv takes rash steps to reassert its authority in Crimea either by sending in troops or by allowing revolutionary paramilitaries to launch a “people’s march” on Crimea. One of the most worrisome by-products of the Ukrainian revolution is the fact that there are now far more guns and advanced weaponry in the hands of nonstate actors than at any point in the country’s post-Soviet history.

That means there is a greater risk that even small incidents could have major ramifications. The recent severe deterioration in relations between Moscow and the United States and the EU over Ukraine is an additional source of unpredictability. Russian leaders believe, rightly or wrongly, that the West drove events in Ukraine to the brink of collapse to secure geopolitical advantage over Moscow. Thus, Western appeals for Russian restraint in the event of a crisis over Crimea are unlikely to resonate. The facts that U.S.-Russian high-level lines of communication remain extremely contentious and that the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, has just left his post with no replacement in sight provide additional sources of concern.

Still, there are several possible steps that might help head off the most dangerous scenarios:

  • A public statement by Putin supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and opposing any moves by Crimea to secede
  • A public commitment by Turchinov and the new provisional Ukrainian government to resolve all disputes in Ukraine peacefully
  • Moscow’s recognition of the new provisional government in Ukraine after it is formed and confirmed by the parliament, the return of the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, and the resumption of official dialogue between Moscow and Kyiv
  • Suspension of the implementation of the Ukrainian parliament’s decision to repeal the language law, which has fomented greater tensions in the country than it has helped fight separatism
  • Informal suspension by the Ukrainian authorities of the threat to prosecute citizens for separatism (Citizens should, of course, be held accountable for their actions, but it is doubtful that the investigative organs are able to act impartially and carefully during a period of revolutionary turmoil.)
  • A resolution by the Ukrainian parliament confirming the nonaligned status of Ukraine, which was enshrined in law in 2010
  • A reciprocal moratorium by Moscow on provocative steps like the possible distribution of Russian passports in Crimea or military movements by Black Sea Fleet units outside their base
  • Reestablishment of a human rights monitoring mission in Crimea led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that would pick up where a previous effort that ended in 1999 left off

The situation in Ukraine has already surprised many experienced observers. What was once seen as impossible has now become all too conceivable. A hot war between Russia and Ukraine would have far-reaching and highly destabilizing consequences, and a transformative effect on Russia’s relations with the West. No effort should be spared to promote a rapid de-escalation of the situation on the ground.

End of document

Comments (36)

  • Walter DuBlanica
    The Bandera and Ukrainian Catholics are a small but loud element in the Ukraine. No one can take them as serious people to lead the Ukraine. Ukraine/Russia/Belarus/Kazakhstan are a population with 8,000,000 square miles of territory, biggest oil and gas reserves in the world, 80% of the black soil in the world, totally self sufficient in all mineral resources. and 210,000,000 population. What else do the Ukrainians need??
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    • Alex replies...
      The right of human dignity to self-determine one's direction in life. Why do you need Ukraine so bad? The world is much bigger than you Slavophile geopolitical worldview.
    • Nick Mazepa replies...
      Ukrainians need Freedom from corrupted officials inside and Putinists , who constantly interfere, from outside. Let Ukraine go it's own way, if you cannot respect it as neighbor. It is not about Bandera now, not even nationalism. People want to leave decent life. Ukrainians would be better off without brotherly help. Each time Russia helps its neighbors it ends up with huge problems. Trying to destabilize Ukraine and other neighbors Russia may pay an ultimate price. It is not the best case having enemies at your borders. Starting major conflict on the western border Russia will berry itself. I am not excluding that you might recall name of Stepan Bandera then.   
    • wilha replies...
      May be this- Luxembourg is a very small country with no natural resource, but Where is the live better.
    • Helen replies...
      1. Ukrainian Catholics do not happen
      2. Man shall not live by bread alone (Matthew 4;4)
  • hansdi04
    Why the EU can not negotiate with Ukraine on the Association Agreement and simultaneously or in tripartite negotiations Russia also make a fair offer on the design of further cooperation and involve them in negotiations to secure the interests of all parties long term?
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  • Omerli
    I don't know why anyone is worried, all we need is for this administration is to draw yet another foreign policy red line in the sand, that should stop all thoughts of aggression by the Russians immediately, no?
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  • Hibernicus
    This is a very wise appeal in a very dangerous, and still evolving, situation. On all sides, decisions with in foreseeable consequences are being taken too hastily and inconsiderately. As well as the justified calls for rowing back by Kyiv and Moscow, Brussels and Washington too could make helpful statements of intent, to the effect that they respect the rights of all Ukrainian citizens, are conscious of the interests of all Ukraine's neighbours and advocate and support measures, such as those mentioned, that will ensure these are taken into account.
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  • Bernard Fudim
    I do not understand how Russian culture in the Crimea would be adversely affected by closer ties with the European Community?
    I can understand the importance of maintaining the Russian fleet in the Black Sea, and I can compare the special circumstance as analogous, to allowing American nuclear powered military vessels to traverse the Suez Canal.
    I do wonder whether the current situation in the Ukraine violates the concept of sovereignty as expressed by the treaty of Westphalia.
    Bernard Fudim
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  • Мария Беляева-Яновская
    Unfortunately, the latest statements by Sergei Lavrov, who is officially speaking for Vladimir Putin, suggest that the Kremlin imagines that Yanukovych can return to Ukraine to face anything but prosecution for his high crimes, for treason, for violation of his oath of office, and for mass murder. Given such statements, your statements in this fine article are completely superseded and out-of-date. There can be no going back on what the Kremlin has just done -- asserted their support of a "President" who emptied the state coffers, ordered brutal violence and mass murder against his employers, and then fled in the night after attempting to destroy important state documents implicating him in many crimes. The very idea is ludicrous that the Kremlin can now exhibit "a change of heart"! The Swiss have already frozen Yanukovych's accounts. Other accounts can also be frozen. Putin can either call off this entire absurd exercise and recogniser that the the sovereign people of Ukraine have made a different choice from the one he would have liked -- or he can face all the consequences of his own folly.
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  • ina Kirsch ECFMU
    As long as Russia will have no assurance about the blacksea fleet agreement not to be recalled and a strengthening of the autonomous status of Crimea they will never give in.
    And we should not forget about one important factor - Putin needs to show his strength towards the Russian society and societies on the former Soviet republics. He wanted Yanukovich from beginning on to call for the State of emergency, to notget the streets to rule out the politicians. Thanks the different forces around Yanukovich this did not happen, otherwise we could have seen easily thousands of victims and Russian troops in Ukraine.
    Now Putin needs to show the strength himself.
    And here the article does not offer anything to Putin to keep the region under his control.
    The EU did not offer anything in trade terms and for visa free travel to Russia as incentives.
    So the EU and with her the European perspective stays a threat to Russia . Here we need to provide an answer to first as basis for solving the Crimea issue and need hot conflicts in the region.
    Otherwise welcome to Transdnistria Ii.
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  • imho
    Sound analysis. To add to it, the EU-US rhetoric has been nothing but provoking to the Russians. There hasn't been one remark from the EU-US that would in any way publicly condemn the right wingers and the idiotic steps they've been taking to destabilize the situation with the ethnic Russian population. The rhetoric by the EU-US is incredibly disconcerting, pretty much saying "stay out or else..." - no compromises, no admission of the existence of legitimate interests of a very close neighbor - this is just "in your face" provocation. I think Russia is being pushed to see how far its willing to go, wether its bluffing - I don't think it is, we already saw something similar in 2008. I'm afraid that, that is a really dangerous game to play - I hope we don't end up with a new all out cold war, or something much worst than that. On the other hand, if Russia hesitates at this point, there is going to be a NATO base somewhere on its border in no time. This doesn't have to be a zero sum game, but someone wants it to be that.
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    • MC replies...
      I absolutely agree.
      Could you try to find the way to make your analysis more noticeable amid a predominant mass of incompetent, irresponsible, and pragmatically empty writing on the subject?!
  • Harold Hyman
    Dear Sir, what is Sebastopol's status, as it was since 1948 directly attached to the SSR of Russia? Did Sebastopol become an ordinary part of Crimean Autonomous Republic?
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    • Dr.Rifat Moustafa replies...
      we support the Ukraine people,to have their rights ,human rights ,get dawn the dectators
    • Vladimir, Moscow replies...
      1) The Crimea was illegally given to Ukraine in 1954, because the decision was made by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR - a body not empowered to do so. The right organ was the Supreme Soviet - but it was not involved; 2) Sevastopol was not given to Ukraine in 1954 together with the Crimea, because it was the city of direct federal rule and was not the part of the Crimea.
  • dakanin
    If Russia acquiesces in the loss of Ukraine, its power will have been pushed fartehr east than anytime since Catherine the Great and Potemkin. I do not think Putin will swallow this. The struggle over Ukraine could deteriorate into a long-term version of the tug of war between Poland and Russia centuries ago. Ukraine needs a domestic consensus over its political, security, and economic place between Russia and Europe--and fast.
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  • неумный
    То что произошло на Украине, это народная демократия или государственный переворот? Я не могу понять, хоть Янукович сделал ошибочные решения, разве можно гнать его таким образом с места президента, раз он был президентом на основе народного выбора.
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  • Professor Vladimir Kozin, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, Moscow
    All seven suggestions are irrelevant and therefore can not be implemented.
    On the other hand, the following suggestiona can and must be implemented: 1) revival of the the right of all minorities to speak their native (local) languages without any hindrances; 2) cancelling the Supreme Rada decree banning "separatism" - it hampers the right to conduct referendums - the right guaranteed in the current Ukranian Constitution; 3) creation of human rights monitoring missions throughout the entire Ukraine, especially investigating cases or murder, rape, looting etc in the Central and Western regions of the country; 4) cancelling all military drills (exercises) that have been planned between NATO and Ukraine - for indefinite period of time; 5) disarming and disbanding all Maidan armed men - thus implementing the 21 February accord signed by the opposition Troika and Yanukovich and witenessed by French, German and Polish Foreign Ministers; 6) Ukraine should pledge to honor and implement all bilateral and international agreements, and pay back all its financial debts in fixed period of time - to foreign countries and private companies.
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    • Free Ukraine replies...
      Professor, how about Russia staying out of Ukraine. Ukrainian people have suffered under Russian control for centuries. Your suggestion about human rights monitoring in Central and Western Ukraine is a joke. Take a good look in your backyard and see the abuse the Russian people take from their own government. I suggest you are more a professor of Russian lies and propaganda!!! Slava Ukraini
  • Andrey Subbotin
    I don't think any "human rights missions" from EU would be seen as impartial by Russians, after EU/US co-sponsored the current coup.
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  • Alla Glinchikova
    Crimea is important for common Russian and Ukranian souvereignity. Those who do not understand it would loose the game. Only unity of Russia and Ukrain could help to get Crimea in 18th century and only unity of Russia and Ukrain would save it for them. None of them can control Crimea by itself. It is not the problem of Crimea, that should be solved. It is the problem of Russian-Ukranian Unity, that should be repaired and developped.
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  • Alexander Lukyanov
    There is a simple variant to seal the "Crimean kettle": will carry out in the Crimea a referendum "About addition the Crimea to the Russian Federation", and then a referendum in Ukraine "About entry the Ukranian Republic at NATO".
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  • tatyana hunter
    Very helpfull suggestions, but situation is unpredictable, I think everbody in the West is downplaying the fact that new government represent victory of right wing in already dangerously  antisemitic country
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  • ap
    1)Ukraine does NOT want to be your buffer state.Right to join NATO 2)Putin's declarations are nonsense for old boys 3)USA+UK signed a treaty in Budapest: try to respect yourselves 4) no naive guys in the West have right and brains to dictate what is good for Ukraine
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  • Pascal
    Russia has a right to protect the rights of its national compatriots on the Crimea, and for that matter also in East Ukraine. As long as they don't get proper autonomy and minority rights, Russia is justified in whatever action it takes. "Territorial integrity" may not be held to be a higher standard than minority rights. If need be borders can be redrawn. Of course, it would be easier if the Ukrainian Rada simply reinstated Crimean autonomy and minority rights for the Russophone minority, but with such neonazis like Svoboda in the government, that is unlikely.
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  • IdilP
    On the morning of February 27, 2014, at 4:27 am, around 50-100 gunmen with masks, bags of ammunition, and Kalashnikovs, sniper rifles, and grenade launchers occupied the Crimean Parliament and the building of Council of Ministers, and hoisted the Russian flag in both buildings. According to eyewitness accounts, they arrived in the area with busses and executed a well-design plan for the seizure of the buildings. under their protection, the Crimean Parliament dismissed Anatoly Mogilev and appointed Sergei Aksyonov, the leader of the "Russian Unity," a well-known pro-Russian politician as the new chairperson of the Crimean Council of Ministers. They subsequently set the date for a referendum: May 25, 2014, the day Ukraine will hold Presidential elections. In this referendum, they will decide Crimea's future, according to Konstantynov, which has two options. a) Split from Kyiv and unify with Russia, b) split from Kyiv and become independent. Meanwhile, the only international airport in Crimea, Simferopol Airport, was occupied by gunmen with unmarked uniforms. The military airport Belbek near Sevastopol was also blocked by ten “Ural” trucks that belong to the Black Sea Fleet of Russia. Tanks are now visible on the streets of Simferopol. According to Crimean residents (I contacted via Skype), people were told stay at home, and government institutions, schools and universities were closed. There is no bread. I think the authors should be aware of these developments.
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  • SayanIndia
    From a pragmatic standpoint, Russia will resort to extreme measures to retain her hold in the strategically vital Crimean peninsula to ensure Russian Navy's presence in Black Sea, Mediterranean and occasional detachments near Middle East.

    It appears, bifurcation of Ukraine is the foregone conclusion unless the political brass in Moscow and Kiev arrive in any amicable (highly challenging in present circumstances) solution.

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  • maurizio gabrielli Rome
    it's no possible to not take in to consideration the expression of the ukrain volontary. a country is composed from people and politcy admnistration, but the majority of people have weight to decide from himself for the future of the nation. so is not acceptable the external pressure
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    • Gracchus Zurich replies...
      1. On 30 March the status of Crimea will change from that of Autonomous Republic of Ukraine to Independent Republic. The West will choose not to recognize the change of status.
      2. Ukrainian sovereign debt will ultimately default, because opposition from economists, also from European (European Parliament elections) taxpayers, will inhibit Western governments from putting any taxpayer money behind any IMF bail-out of an interim government that is neither a unity government of all Ukrainian peoples (i.e. of Ukrainians, Russians, Tartars, Jews and Poles) nor competent in its decision-making (e.g. the interim government's decision of 23 February to change the language law, thereby provoking the people of Crimea to take things in their own hand). Once European and US taxpayers understand - in the next weeks - what Svoboda is, and what it stands for, once European women understand what Svoboda's position on abortion is, once more people have read documents like Vatra 2.0, once ordinary taxpaying people in the West understand Svoboda's role in the interim Ukrainian government, also Svoboda's threat, in 2013, to remove the Autonomous Republic status from Crimea, they will realise that Western politicians (Nuland, Pyatt, Steinmeier, Fabius, Sikorski, Hague, Ashton) are out of their depth (since incompetent to deal with the likes of Svoboda and those on Svoboda's right), and therefore incompetent to effect the structural changes (remember: no IMF loan without a Structural Adjustment Program) that would warrant granting the Ukraine a loan or a loan restructuring. Instead, a time will come to let Ukrainian sovereign debt default: perhaps through default, the Ukrainian people can fuse with their obsession "to identify with the Holodomor and with Stepan Bandera".
      3. To understand today's Ukraine, one needs to first understand the Chmielnicki Uprising of 1648-1657: Chmielnicki is before everyone else.

  • sw
    The Key here is Poland, they will determine if these acts of war are responded to.
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  • Dmytro Shulga
    Don't mislead your readers. Those "Crimean" forces without any signs - are the regular Russian troops. Among them are airborn Novorossiysk division and other troops based not in Crimea but in Russia. The "Crimean authorities" were elected while the troops in the local parliament. It's just so blatantly cynical from the Russians that for some time many people were not ready to believe. Unfortunately, it's true. Russia occupied Crimea, without any provocation or pretext. 99% of people living there - Ukrainian citizens. No human rights violations of ethnic Russians were ever registered. So far, Ukrainian troops show restraint, but most probably start of shooting is just a matter of time. If US, UN, NATO, OSCE don't intervene.
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  • Otto Kern
    After being defeated in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the West is going to be defeated in Syria. That's for well informed people clear at least since October 2012, and the West is already defeated in Ukraine.

    Nobody in the West will intervene if Russia should protect the ethnnic Russians in Crimea. And if there should be an international investigation it will become obvious that the West has been training Ukrainian nationalist for years in Poland and other Western countries

    When reading Western newspapers, I'm simply amused about the miscalculation of the joint Sino-Russian strength. And when reading the appeal of the Ukrainian fascists to Tartars and the terrorists of the Itchkeria Emirate (v. Kavkazcenter.com) it's grotesque how the Western media are simply belying the Western peoples to divert them from the catastrophic economic situation.

    As a studied economists it's obvious for me that the Ukraine will cost the West tens of billions of Dollars. The Ukraine will be a sort of an economic Stalingrad. And the downfall of the Ruble will be in the interest of the exporting and the tourist industry.

    And believe me: The majority of the Germans are more interested in Russian gas than in any military adventure in the Ukraine.

    Otto Kern
    DE 37412 Herzberg-the Esperanto City
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  • Maundering
    With respect to this article and others in the western media I suggest we are missing a key element.

    If the Russians believe that this region is their strategic depth and that the Crimea in particular is a strategically vital to the security of Russia itself then in that context their actions seem understandable, if not defendable from a western humanistic perspective

    I suggest that we are failing to understand how Russia sees the shift of Ukrane into a western orbit. I don't presume to know but a Ukrane that is part of the EU and tied to Europe and possibly NATO can be seen to impact Russian security from a realpolitik perspective

    Just my perspective but I suggest we want to avoid the error of presuming that others see isk and threats in the same context we do. It not our capital that NATO tanks would be a few hundred km from....

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  • Finn
    Ukraine is about to mobilise. The time is running out. Taking tue Ukrainan airfields was a preparatory measure to a war-like situation.
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  • James Taylor Ranney
    Really excellent article, containing many positive suggestions. Excellent!
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Source http://carnegie.ru/2014/02/27/keep-lid-on-crimea/h1yd

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