This is part 1 of a 3-part series. Read part 2 here and part 3 here.
As the invasion of Ukraine drags on and escalates sharply to nuclear posturing in what is now its ninth month, approaches to the war have scarcely changed or even been adjusted slightly from anyone at all. Despite a rapidly changing social and political environment on the ground, many have stayed entrenched in their initial thoughts and policies from February, some even firmly affixed to their seven-year-old reaction to Maidan. Admittedly I was part of this crowd prior to February, reluctant to expend much energy on a European frozen conflict between two capitalist states surrounded in a mainstream circus of Cold War rhetoric. As the conflict has evolved, it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the position and resistance of Ukrainian progressives in this conflict. In a sea of policy platitudes, many have either forgotten entirely about Ukrainian progressives or muted them out to promote an unreasonable idealism that is completely isolated from reality on the ground.
In the Ukraine discourse, it has become increasingly important to include elements of the war that were less visible in its prior phases, such as the recent rise of progressive armed forces in Ukraine who counter both Ukrainian statism and the Russian invasion. Understanding Ukrainian progressive responses to the war is paramount in any internationalist analysis, separating these perspectives from Western approaches both in the “anti-war left” and mainstream politics.
This piece is not intended to redundantly deconstruct Russian state narratives which are already frequently questioned, but rather to uplift Ukrainian progressive perspectives and review responses particularly among the “anti-war left,” which has displayed its normative complicity with the Russian war machine while careless of its consequences to the Ukrainian people. Here it is elucidated in extensive detail the grassroots internationalist approach to Ukraine: that the Ukrainian people have a right to defend their self-determination and autonomy, that the Russian state is the aggressor, and that the West has taken advantage of Ukrainian politics for its own imperialist benefit.
NATO-Bucharest 2008: Roots of Russian State Insecurity
Before conceptualizing any discourse, one must conceptualize the nuances of the conflict itself. Most internationalists can agree that NATO expansionism is a central factor in understanding the political context of the Russian state’s casus bellis in Ukraine and elsewhere. While the invasion of Ukraine is a unilateral act of the Russian state, one cannot ignore the historical context of the Russian state’s relations with the West, and likewise Western relations with the Russian state. The role of the West in enabling conflict, destabilizing Ukraine by abusing the state as a proxy, is a fundamental component to this concept of Russian state aggression in the country.
The NATO-Bucharest Summit of 2008 showed the first major effort of NATO’s attempted expansion into Ukraine. Despite Russian attempts to normalize relations with NATO following its 1994 membership in the Partnership for Peace, these prospects were definitively killed in 2008. NATO took a clear adversarial approach to the Russian state by offering membership to the Georgian and Ukrainian states, upsetting a Russian state that had just watched NATO consume seven states in Eastern Europe four years prior and use them to help install pro-Western governments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fresh off the Chechen Wars, the Russian state was uneasy seeing NATO expansion whilst trying to suppress numerous separatist movements across the country. At this point it was clear that the Russian state would not be admitted into NATO, but rather that NATO was its adversary. The Russian state then pulled an Uno reverse card and backed separatist movements in Western-backed states, culminating in the Russian invasion of Georgia just four months after the summit in Bucharest. From then on, co-optation of separatist movements for Russian political dominance (hegemony) became a primary policy for the Russian state.
The Russian state was hurrying to pre-empt a perceived threat to Russian power. This threat was never really actualized, as neither the Georgian nor Ukrainian states joined NATO, and no separatist movements in Russia were backed by the West. Perceived threat of Ukrainian NATO membership was, as we know, eventually met with the same response as Georgia. Contestation of regional hegemony by fellow police states undoubtedly hurts Putin’s pride most directly, as he is an ex-KGB godfather of modern police statism. NATO expansionism has driven Putin to the point of paranoia, so much so that he has made it his goal to make the Russian state as imperialist as possible.
Western incitement of the Russian state near its borders is not an isolated incident, it is a pattern that has carried on since the Russian Revolution. As Noam Chomsky has declared repetitively, to the degree that his analysis flirts with state reductionism, the US and NATO have knowingly, intentionally, and provocatively encroached closer and closer to Russia in an intrusive cycle that keeps hegemonic tensions heightened and military-industrial complex capital flowing. This behavior is not isolated in a broader context either. Brinkmanship is common behavior among imperialist states, the Iranian and Israeli states clashing over Syria, the Japanese and Chinese states saber rattling over islands in the South China Sea, to name only two current examples out of dozens.
Chomsky may not be wrong when he says: “It is hard to imagine that any Russian government would tolerate NATO forces in Ukraine. That has been understood for 30 years by high-level U.S. officials who have any knowledge of the region, and it’s even more unlikely now.” Given the Russian state’s political demographics, let alone its history, it would likely require some form of inorganic regime change for a Russian state to be friendly to NATO in its current manifestation.
A cogent point that Chomsky makes is that the US has discouraged diplomatic negotiation, and is thus likely prolonging the war. This analysis has a valid premise in that the US itself has legitimized Russian state propaganda by acting as though it is the arbiter of diplomacy for the Ukrainian state and its guarantor of security. Chomsky’s analysis disregards Russian state intentions in this invasion, however, which have been to conquer Ukraine. Negotiation can only go so far when an invading state will accept nothing less than annexation. Diplomacy outside of absolute appeasement has been off the table since the annexation of Crimea.
While Chomsky’s analysis counters Western prejudice effectively and is overall consistent on state relations, it fails to present a broader social picture on the ground of Ukraine beyond states. Instead, it seems to reduce the conflict to states as the sole actors. Many elements of the “anti-war left” have adopted Chomsky’s assessment and hold it as the supreme explanation of the war, often reappropriating his assessment with Kremlin-injected social thought in areas that he has neglected in the analysis.
A large portion of anti-authoritarian internationalists and Ukrainians alike would much rather fight a hard-fought resistance to secure lasting self-determination than a diplomatic appeasement that leads to lasting suffering under a colonial military regime. Though Chomsky’s intentions are in a benevolent place, his proposals are unreasonable given the fact that a diplomatic resolution leading to positive peace is virtually impossible with the ruling classes in play. Immediate diplomacy is not possible when an invading party does not want the invaded party to exist. The “just let the Russian state colonize and ethnic cleanse because peace” approach puts any thinker on a path to social Darwinism, and Chomsky is clearly not immune from this. All roads lead to Rome just as all Western “anti-war left” talking points lead to “weak must submit to strong” talking points.
Invasion via Social Weaponry, Not “Inter-Imperialism”
In all conflict, one must begin at the human level in its relationship with power structures. While Russophobia has increased exponentially in the West, the Russian state outright dehumanizes Ukrainians in its propaganda and channels this through mass murder of the population, a convenient narrative carried on from centuries of anti-Ukrainian sentiment exacerbated under Soviet rule. The Russian Revolution did not end Russian hegemony in the Russian Empire, it rebranded it. The Ukrainian ethnicity was reduced to “kulak” by Russian power structures in 1917 just as it is reduced to “Nazi” in 2022. In reality, neither kulaks nor Nazis have come even remotely close to comprising a majority of the Ukrainian population nor its state government at any point in history. The dehumanizing mental gymnastics that rationalized the Holodomor are the same abused to rationalize the Russian state’s invasion today.
Needless to say, the Ukrainian people are disproportionately affected by Russian hegemony, and the vast majority of the population either supports or participates in self-defense. The shallow narrative that the Russian population is somehow falling victim to NATO in this process places Russians with Ukrainians in a false equivalence. The nuance to this is really more simple than it appears: most Russians are absolutely fine, most Ukrainians are not. There is a sizable gap in ethics between a short period of controlled inflation in Russia and missiles leveling entire cities in Ukraine, not that either are justified in any way.
Even with the mobilization, only a small fraction of Russia’s population is being thrown into the invasion, many of them ethnic minorities so that the Russian gene pool can be preserved as much as possible. Meanwhile, the entire population of Ukraine is existentially obligated to defend its homeland and support the war effort. Life carries on relatively normal in Russia while self-defense is now the priority in all facets of Ukrainian society. Narratives falsely equating the questionable effect of Western sanctions to the sheer destruction enacted on the Ukrainian population serves the Russian war machine and the Russian war machine alone. Though the West has clearly attempted to weaponize this conflict against the Russian people, it has largely failed to do so. The impact of sanctions on Russia has been exaggerated, and they have also hurt Western economies to a significant degree.
Even with all of the West’s malevolence in mind, emphasizing blame for the conflict on NATO frames the Russian state as a victim, insisting that the Russian elite somehow require sympathy. From this analysis, it was only because NATO incited tensions that the Russian state invaded, therefore it is apparently an “inter-imperialist” conflict. The population defending its homeland from invasion then gets conflated into the “inter-imperialist” label, as if there is no distinction whatsoever separating the intentions of Russian and Ukrainian forces. Somehow it is assumed that the Ukrainian population is at fault for resisting invasion from the Russian state, at fault for defending itself from annihilation, at fault for defending its homeland from absolute destruction. It is assumed that both sides are just workers blindly being manipulated by the elite into conflict, and therefore the conflict is undeserving of closer social consideration. In many statements of the “anti-war left” there seems to be more solidarity for the Russian ruling class than for actual workers in this conflict.
This analysis completely neglects the relationship between an invading force and a population in self-defense, attempting to homogenize all actors under the reductive labels of “inter-imperialism” and “working people.” So many layers of social nuance are skipped over in this neorealist assumption of Ukraine as an imperialist monolith.
Colonization via State Capitalist Conquest
“All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. This is the political formula for the situation. The technological formula may be stated as follows: Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system.”
– Walter Benjamin
The Russian state has abused its aestheticized nationalism as a mass movement against the Ukrainian people, from which the Russian property system annexes the one next door and strips it of domestic control, placing both systems further away from any path of deconstruction. The Russian state weaponizes sham referendums at gunpoint in Ukraine to codify its colonial property system. This system is what Ukrainian progressives fight against when they fight against the Russian invasion. With the age of mass surveillance and the Russian state among its top powers, it is exponentially more difficult to resist a property system of foreign occupation than one of domestic occupation in the case of Ukraine. So, when considering the long-term approach to resistance in Ukraine, it only makes sense to dedicate as much effort as possible to expelling Russian forces.
Benjamin’s idea of the wartime property system is reminiscent of Subcomandante Marcos’ megapole theory, being the duplication of corporate property systems across the world to expand a state’s oligarchal power through instability. The Russian state has emulated this imperialist property system closely in its occupation, enabling Russian corporations to exploit cheap labor from Ukrainian residents who have become severely impoverished from the invasion. “Special military operation” has been used by imperialist states as a rephrase of “conquest” in this sense, to expand their property systems as widely and as brutally as possible through invasion and ethnic cleansing. We see this as a recurring pattern with numerous imperialist states across the world, including the US, Turkish state, Indonesian state, Iranian state, Israeli state, Chinese state, and plenty others.
This scramble for state property in Ukraine is by no means limited to the Russian state, however. Zelensky’s wartime crackdown on unions, progressives, and the opposition bloc has significantly weakened Ukrainian labor rights, keeping property further away from the hands of workers and closer to the hands of the state. As a result, capital and state power concentrate further, and further, and further as a symptom of wartime late-stage statism. The Ukrainian ruling class has proven its disconnection from the resistance in that it has disadvantaged literally everyone on the frontline, who happen to be the exact same workers affected. These actions are not connected to the Ukrainian resistance, but rather a crime against its workers perpetrated by the Ukrainian ruling class.
One cannot help but think back to the wartime playbook of Lenin, who, once upon a time, eliminated workers’ autonomy and oversaw the massacre of thousands of striking workers to expand the Bolshevik monopoly on power. This was complemented by the Bolshevik policy of “war communism,” which culminated in subsequent peasant massacres such as those seen in Tambov and Sorokino, as well as the suppression of workers in Kronstadt.
Ukraine In the Context of the USSR, Orange Revolution, and Maidan
The Ukrainian state is, at the end of the day, a post-Soviet police state scarcely different in structure than any other liberalized Eastern Bloc state. The idea that the Ukrainian state is a “democratic” one is a delusion propelled by Western states and liberal media to separate Western-backed post-SSRs from Russian-backed post-SSRs. In reality, structural differences in the post-Soviet state constellation are generally nominal, and have been this way since the Soviet Union. Power is vested in a unitary republic and communities are entirely subordinate to the ruling class hegemony, which is propelled by an alliance between oligarchy and military.
It should not be difficult to ascertain that this reality has adversely impacted the Russian-speakers of Donbass, leaving them disaffected under Ukrainian hegemony after enjoying decades of structural privilege in the USSR. Following the Europhilic Viktor Yushchenko’s 2004 election in the wake of the Orange Revolution, the Ukrainian state ensured the social marginalization of Donbass for five years under Ukrainian nationalism. It was not until the Russophilic Viktor Yanukovych’s 2010 election that the entire sociopolitical perception of Ukrainian statehood was changed. In both cases, the elections were considerably narrow, nearly splitting the Ukrainian voting population in half. Taking advantage of the Ukrainian state’s duopoly, Yushchenko was narrowly elected by a 7.8% majority in 2004, almost entirely concentrated in the central and western regions. Yanukovych was narrowly elected by a 3.5% majority in 2010, almost entirely concentrated in the southern and eastern regions.
Suddenly Donbass became a domestic policy priority under Yanukovych in 2010 while state attention to the rest of Ukraine decreased. This shift to the opposite end of the duopoly then marginalized ethnic Ukrainians right back, Yanukovych pledging to change the official language of Ukraine to Russian and subvert local Ukrainian sectors with Russian ones. In the process of post-Soviet political mainstream reducing Ukraine to a binary between Europhiles and Russophiles, ethnic minorities in Ukraine have been entirely neglected by both reactionary ruling factions.
After four years of subjection to a repressive Russian satellite state attempting to shift the cultural and ethnic makeup of Ukraine, Ukrainians in the central and western regions desired a new government. This desire materialized into the 2014 Maidan Uprising. A layered analysis of Maidan from Ukrainian progressive perspectives can be found in Autonomous Workers Union’s 2014 interview “Maidan and its Contradictions.” As suggested by Ukrainian progressives themselves, labeling Maidan as a “color revolution” or “coup” serves to dehumanize the Ukrainian people, and this analysis happens to be rejected by a large portion of the Ukrainian left. Ukrainian progressives maintain that Maidan was fueled more by the urge to depart from Russian hegemony than to join European power structures, and that liberal opportunist parties abused this sentiment for Eurocentrism. A Ukrainian revolutionary syndicalist explained in the 2014 interview with Autonomous Workers Union:
“‘Europe’ was never actually the main aim of the protesters. Anti-government and anti-Russian sentiments were much stronger, so they naturally overtook the pro-EU rhetoric after the police crackdown of December 1, and now most people hardly even remember what the initial cause of the demonstrations was. Many people agree that the very term Euromaidan is already anachronistic. The far right groups, which initially had to hide their traditional attitude to the ‘liberal decaying EU’ in order to infiltrate the protests, now openly state that they don’t care about the EU and only want a regime change. This sentiment is accepted in the wide circles of the protesters.”
Another detailed analysis of Maidan can be found in CrimethInc.’s February 2022 interview: “Ukraine: Between Two Fires.”
In both the Orange Revolution and Maidan, protesters were not able to reverse many of the Ukrainian state’s structural problems, as the oligarchy continued to infiltrate the state through liberal opportunist parties. The most significant change was state favoritism toward either oligarchy, Yanukovych favoring fusion of the Ukrainian oligarchy with the Russian oligarchy and Poroshenko favoring fusion with the Western oligarchy. With the Western oligarchy now firmly integrated in the Ukrainian economy following Maidan, the Ukrainian state was able to successfully gather extensive military support from Western states without having to join NATO.
“The blanket-statement ‘color revolution’ narrative treats people like children. It ignores their actual lived experiences and motivations and lumps all people into one neat little camp under the banner of forced nationalist identity. It’s monolithic thinking, and leaves no room for complex (and contradictory) ecosystems of social interaction.
It’s no different than right wingers here in the states saying that race riots are sparked by ‘outside agitators’ – as if black people can’t rise up on their own initiative without external, white influence.
Right now, there are Kurdish people in so-called Iran rising up and using this moment to take land back from their conquerors. Even before the CIA interventions and regime change in Iran, the state was a settler project on stolen indigenous land. Full stop. No amount of ‘socialism’ will amend that.”
-Payton (IG: @__black__velvet)
What is commonly attached to the “color revolution” analysis is dehumanizing Ukrainians as “fascists” and “Nazis,” conflating these terms with the Ukrainian ethnicity as a whole. Though fascists are certainly present in Ukraine and have materialized very noticeable armed forces, they are a virtually powerless minority with no stake in the executive chambers of the state and only a negligible representation in parliament. Putin himself has admitted that Ukraine’s far-right population is a minority (albeit with the intention of making it appear that there are more Russian nationalists). Contrarily, fascism is the very skeleton of statehood in Donbass, defended in its bulk by the likes of Wagner Group and openly neo-Nazi militias such as the Russian National Unity Volunteer Units, Interbrigades, Rusich Company, and many others. The misconception that neo-Nazi units only exist to the west of Donbass is rooted in Kremlin propaganda. In reality, far more neo-Nazi political power in the region can be found in Donbass than in the rest of Ukraine.
Conceptualizing the Post-Maidan Ukrainian Left and Its Responses
There is a pervasive stereotype that Ukrainian progressives have given up on organizing and have simply been absorbed into fascist militias and the National Guard. We know this is not true. The Ukrainian left never gave up on organizing, as this is evident in the numerous crackdowns on progressive groups that otherwise would not have happened. The Ukrainian state has censored and repressed the left severely, refusing to allow them a coherent militia presence of any kind up until the 2022 invasion.
Thus, Ukrainian progressives had to wait for the right time to organize, which happened to be the 2022 invasion. Since then, we have seen the rapid rise of Ukrainian radical left-libertarian and anarchist forces such as RevDia, United Anti-Authoritarian Forces of Ukraine, Arsenal Kyiv Hooligans, Black Flag Ukraine, Solidarity Collectives, Operation Solidarity, and others, who fight both the crony capitalism of the Ukrainian police state and the greater immediate threat of the Russian invasion. Belarusian anarchists and anti-authoritarians have also formed their own units within the Kastus Kalinowski Battalion. Evident in their ascending following base and membership, anarchist movements have expanded significantly in this conflict and their influence is growing in Ukraine. From the historic revolution of Nestor Makhno to his descendants in the Ukrainian anti-authoritarian forces today, the Ukrainian resistance has everything to do with class war, expelling imperialist occupation in order to fight for autonomy domestically.
It is somewhat of a miracle that anti-authoritarians have been able to form their own autonomous units and enjoy a steady supply of arms through the National Guard, but that is largely because Ukraine is now in an existential crisis. What is important here is not where the arms came from, but the fact that they now have this abundance of arms and will likely keep them for a very long time. The Ukrainian state’s rationale here is that anyone willing to fight the invasion will get free guns and ammunition. Because the Ukrainian state is forced to think in the short-term, it cannot immediately realize the future repercussions of this armament on its power structures. Because so many factions have been armed with a significant degree of autonomy, the state itself may very well be gradually losing its monopoly on power. In other words, Ukrainian anti-authoritarians just finessed the hell out of the Ukrainian state.
To confront feminist pacifism, Ukrainian progressive feminists wrote a manifesto in July which has since gained the endorsement of over 70 progressive organizations across the world. Ukrainian feminists assert that the invasion must be resisted by women, as gender violence and patriarchy are common pillars of the Russian war machine, and that telling a woman to disarm is essentially telling her to accept rape. In the words of anti-pacifist feminists in Ukraine:
“Feminist solidarity must defend women’s* right to independently determine their needs, political goals, and strategies for achieving them. Ukrainian feminists were struggling against systemic discrimination, patriarchy, racism, and capitalist exploitation long before the present moment. We conducted and will continue to conduct this struggle both during war and in peacetime. However, the Russian invasion is forcing us to focus on the general defense effort of Ukrainian society: the fight for survival, for basic rights and freedoms, for political self-determination…
…The Russian aggression undermines the achievements of Ukrainian feminists in the struggle against political and social oppression. In the occupied territories, the Russian army uses mass rape and other forms of gender-based violence as a military strategy. The establishment of the Russian regime in these territories poses the threat of criminalizing LGBTIQ+ people and decriminalizing domestic violence.”
Present on this progressive front in Ukraine is also the All-Ukraine Independent Trade Union of Ukraine (AUITU), which has joined the resistance both on the frontlines and on the civilian front. In the words of AUITU from March 2022:
“The Independent Trade Union of Ukraine ‘Zakhist Pratsi’ is directly involved in the resistance to the invasion by Russian imperialism. We are fighting along side the working class and the Ukrainian people on various fronts of resistance. Some organizations of our union, such as the ‘Zakhista Pratsi’ miners’ union at the ‘Selidov-ugol’ firm, are protecting us and our future with weapons in their hands and in the most difficult conditions of the hostilities. Many activists of our union are now resisting the rocket and bomb attacks of the Russian troops, supporting the difficult conditions of the bomb shelters, saving their children and their families from certain death.”
In spite of Ukrainian state union crackdowns, AUITU finds the invasion to be an existential threat both to itself and its workers, and thus prioritizes self-defense against Russian occupation. In other words, this is the class war side of the resistance. AUITU went on to say that the invasion “united the trade union and labor movement in Ukraine” and that “we now need increasingly active international solidarity with our anti-imperialist resistance.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian progressive Marxist-Leninist groups have failed to gain much traction at all. Progressive Marxist-Leninists, represented mostly by the Labor Front of Ukraine (RFU), currently hold a small presence relative to anarchists and other progressive movements in Ukraine. Though RFU dissents with reactionary Marxists, it has referred to anarchists as “Ukrainian bourgeoisie” and has thus antagonized a huge portion of Ukrainian progressives against its own benefit. It now has few progressive allies in Ukraine and is highly vulnerable to state repression. While anti-authoritarians have already organized effectively in both mutual aid and resistance, RFU has admitted it is still struggling to muster its own organizing response, citing lack of experience.
It also must be understood that the Communist Party of Ukraine (KPU) is not progressive by any measure. Much like the Socialist Party of Ukraine (SPU), KPU is a severely reactionary mass movement that has collaborated heavily with Nazbol fascists through the misnomer “Left Opposition” coalition. The reactionary tendencies of the KPU and SPU are described in Autonomous Workers’ Union journalist Denys Gorbach’s piece “After the ban: a short history of Ukraine’s Communist Party,” Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko’s 2015 article “Kiev Has a Nasty Case of Anti-Communist Hysteria,” and an anonymous author’s 2018 article “An Investigation Into Red-Brown Alliances: Third Positionism, Russia, Ukraine, Syria, And The Western Left.”
The Ukrainian state banned the KPU and SPU not for their social tendencies, which happen to be very similarly reactionary to the Zelensky bloc and nationalist bloc but with Soviet flavoring. Rather, it has banned them because of their political threat to the Zelensky bloc and potential collaboration with the Russian state. Either way, both parties have been conflated with actual Ukrainian progressives and used by the Ukrainian state to dehumanize them.
Understanding the existence of Ukrainian progressives and solidarity with them begins with the fact that a large majority are anti-authoritarian, rejecting the Soviet model, European model, and Ukrainian nationalist model. Ukrainian progressives should not be criticized for prioritizing defense against a Russian state that happens to be annihilating the entire physical and social environment around them. Some in the Western left expect Ukrainian radicals to go full Rambo against domestic fascists in the middle of an invasion. This would be a death sentence.
Ukrainian anti-authoritarians have been underground for over a century. It is not like they do not know what they are doing. What is most important is not how the state reacts to anti-authoritarians, this we already know. Rather, it is how anti-authoritarians will have harnessed this struggle for autonomy to expand, gain experience, forge new pathways of resistance, and use other attributes to their advantage. As an international ally, one should leave Ukrainian progressives to what they find to be the most suitable path in liberation, and hold solidarity instead of constantly holding them under a microscope of judgment.
Explicitly maintained by a large portion of Ukrainian progressives, the Ukrainian people have a right to self-determination as do all communities and peoples, and the justification of self-defense against invasion is right there in that sentence. The Russian state, in planting its property system by force, attempts to colonize Ukraine and reverse the efforts of Ukrainian workers in their fight for autonomy. Ukrainian self-determination is plagued with imperialist masters in the Russo-Ukrainian War, yet this has no impact on the inherent value of self-determination and the class war side of the conflict. To be in favor of self-determination and class war is not to be in favor of war, it is to be in favor of autonomy exacted through self-defense.
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