Realpolitik theory has long been an influential approach to analyzing and understanding international relations. At its core, realpolitik emphasizes power politics, national interests, and the role of coercion over ideology or ethical concerns in driving foreign policy (Mearsheimer 2013). Developed largely from the experiences of 19th century European power politics, realpolitik provides a realist lens for making sense of interstate competition and conflict.
In recent years, the realpolitik paradigm has gained renewed relevance amidst major geopolitical upheavals, from the rise of China to Russian revisionism. This has prompted both supporters and critics to reevaluate realpolitik in the 21st century context (Ripsman 2009). Nowhere has this been more crucial than in relation to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Since 2014, Russia’s forceful annexation of Crimea and the eruption of war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region have posed fundamental challenges to the post-Cold War order. Russia’s actions clearly defy norms of sovereignty and territorial integrity, flouting international law in favor of raw power politics (Sakwa 2015).
For realist thinkers, the crisis underscores the primacy of realpolitik in global affairs. Russia’s assertive behavior is seen to reflect the cold calculations of national interest in an anarchic system, rather than any principled belief in ethical norms. Meanwhile, Western responses are interpreted through a realpolitik lens, as primarily reflecting the national interests and relative power balances between states. Conversely, critics argue that realpolitik notions fail to adequately explain state motivations, neglect the role of institutions and norms, and cannot resolve the complex Ukraine crisis.
This paper aims to develop the concepts of realpolitik theory through an in-depth examination of the Ukraine crisis as a pivotal case study. It assesses the realist assumptions about power politics, national interests, and the utility of coercion that underpin realpolitik. Drawing on academic analysis and primary evidence, it tests the explanatory power of realpolitik against the evolving realities in Ukraine. Overall, the paper argues that while realpolitik retains vital insights, its focus on material capabilities requires refinement to account for ideational factors and the constraining role of norms. As the case of Crimea highlights, military power alone cannot ensure political legitimacy. Meanwhile, Russia’s use of hybrid warfare tactics in the Donbas necessitates nuance in what constitutes coercion.
Ultimately, incorporating normative and ideational variables can improve realpolitik as an analytical framework. This may offer more cogent policy prescriptions – balancing ethics and interests – to resolve complex crises like the one still unfolding in Ukraine. The paper is structured in three sections. The first section outlines the premises of classical realpolitik theory, before tracing its evolution to contemporary neorealist thought. The second section provides necessary historical background, examining Ukraine’s strategic significance and the origins of the crisis since 2014. The third and main section applies realpolitik perspectives to analyze Russian and Western policies at play in Crimea and the Donbas. It critiques and proposes refinements to realism, testing how well realpolitik withstands empirical scrutiny in Ukraine.
Section I: Realpolitik Theory – Core Tenets and Evolution
Realpolitik refers to a pragmatic and realist theory of conducting foreign policy based on practical considerations of material power rather than ideological or moral premises. Often associated with conservative statecraft, it prioritizes national interests and the balance of power above idealistic goals (Rose 1998). This section outlines the foundations of realpolitik thought, tracking its intellectual development and relevance in the post-Cold War era. It provides the theoretical basis to then apply and examine realpolitik perspectives on the Ukraine crisis.
While realpolitik has earlier antecedents, the term is generally attributed to the German writer Ludwig von Rochau, who coined it in 1853. Rochau published Foundations of Realpolitik, responding to the failed liberal revolutions of 1848 with a call for German unification based on realistic Machtpolitik (power politics) rather than liberal idealism (Haslam 2002: 10-11). His work influenced later practitioners of realpolitik, especially Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian statesman who unified Germany through a series of short victorious wars.
As an analytical approach, realpolitik is rooted in certain core assumptions about international affairs. It takes a pessimistic view of human nature and the prospects for progress in an anarchic Hobbesian world (Donnelly 2000: 7). Rather than ideals or institutions, realists emphasize material power capabilities based on geography, natural resources, population, and military strength as the key determinants of national power and foreign policy (Morgenthau 1985). States are primarily motivated by the pursuit of national interests defined in terms of power – considering survival as the minimal goal, but also seeking to maximize influence and minimize vulnerability (Niebuhr 1932: 188). Ethics and ideology are considered irrelevant to interest-based calculations, or mere pretexts to disguise power politics.
Given this bleak ‘reality’, realpolitik considers the use of power and coercion as inevitable and necessary tools of statecraft. In a self-help system, threats and force are essential to defend interests. As Thucydides’ famous dictum set out: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” (Thucydides 1972: 402). Diplomacy is important, but primarily as a means to balance power through temporary alliances that shift based on national interests (Rose 1998: 146). Ultimately, realpolitik presents a tragic view of international relations as a recurring struggle for security, dominance and survival – rather than a cherished ideal.
Classical realpolitik fell out of favor as liberal internationalism rose after World War I. But realist thought was revived and refined into modern ‘neorealism’ by scholars like Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan and Kenneth Waltz from the 1940s (Donnelly 2000: 33-35). While retaining realism’s core tenets, neorealists added greater complexity in understanding power and the structure of the international system.
Seeking to develop a comprehensive ‘realist theory’, Morgenthau’s Politics Among Nations (1948) reformulated realpolitik principles into a rational theory of political behavior. He identified six principles guiding interest-defined policies, from the desire to keep power and moral motives separate to the need for flexibility in response to the power distribution (Morgenthau 1985: 4-15). For Morgenthau, rational realpolitik offered universal lessons for prudently navigating international anarchy.
However, neorealists split between ‘human nature’ pessimists like Morgenthau and ‘systemic’ realists like Waltz (1986) who instead attribute conflict to the structure of anarchy rather than flawed human nature. Waltz’s Theory of International Politics (1979) uses microeconomic analogies to model international relations as a self-help system where socialization is weak. He contends that systemic, not individual, pressures compel states to prioritize power and security in an anarchic ‘self-help’ system, making realpolitik strategic behavior rational.
This neorealist reformulation preserved realpolitik’s focus on interests and power while adding theoretical sophistication. Kenneth Waltz declared unapologetically that “realism contains no theory of foreign policy” beyond generic predictions about power-seeking (Waltz 1996: 918). Yet neorealist theory provides a model of systemic constraints that compel states to conduct interest-based policies – a modern framing for realpolitik statecraft.
Post-Cold War Relevance
Realism declined during the 1990s heyday of liberal optimism. Yet realpolitik has regained relevance, as great power tensions resurfaced while liberal order-building faltered. Offensive realists like John Mearsheimer argue that anarchy compels states to maximize power and seek hegemony – making conflict endemic even absent a Cold War ideological divide (2001). Defensive realists like Stephen Walt (1987) counter that balancing and buck-passing can limit power struggles absent a potential regional hegemon. Nevertheless, both accept that hard-nosed calculations of interest push ethical norms aside.
Realists highlighted how unipolarity incentivized the US to abandon prudent realpolitik for reckless liberal interventionism. Overstretch in Iraq and Afghanistan showed the limits of liberal hegemony (Mearsheimer 2018). Meanwhile, Russia’s military modernization and China’s economic ascent underscored the return of great power rivalry – seen as validating the realist dictum that “the strong do what they can” (Allison 2017).
In this climate, realpolitik principles have informed much analysis of the new era of geopolitical competition (Mead 2014). Pundits debate whether Barack Obama was an idealist or realist, and call for Donald Trump to return to the realpolitik of Nixon and Kissinger (Kaplan 2016). Allies urge pragmatism over moralism in dealing with Russia and China (Staniland 2018). Syria is the tragedy of realpolitik ruthlessly asserting itself (Haslam 2016). And amidst global turmoil, ethicists and policymakers wrestle with balancing morality and realism (Nye 2015). Recurring disillusionment with liberalism ensures realpolitik continues to shape policy debates.
Section II: Historical Background – Ukraine as a Strategic Pivot
Having outlined the development of realpolitik thought, this section provides necessary historical context for the case study by examining Ukraine’s geopolitical significance as a long contested strategic pivot. It traces the origins of the current crisis back to Ukraine’s troubled post-Soviet transition and the Euromaidan revolution that triggered renewed tensions with Russia.
Ukraine as Geostrategic Pivot
With its vast size, resources and population of 44 million, Ukraine has long been a crucial geopolitical pivot between East and West. Located on the fault line between the Russian heartland and western realms, control over Ukraine traditionally represented a key strategic interest for imperial Russia. Through the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire, rivals contested this borderland territory. Despite nationalist resistance, the modern Ukrainian state was largely shaped under Tsarist Russian and Soviet rule for centuries.
Ukraine’s strategic significance persisted after the Soviet collapse, owing to its role as a buffer against Western expansion. Russian leaders expressed deep concern over losing even indirect influence over this Slavic ‘brother nation’, let alone Ukraine joining NATO. Meanwhile, the US and EU viewed incorporating Ukraine into the West as crucial for spreading liberal order (Kuzio and D’Anieri 2018: 333). This made Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation a matter of intense great power rivalry. Attempts at balancing between Russia and the West proved unsustainable. Ukraine was faced with an impossible dilemma as both sides sought to pull it towards their orbit.
The 2004-2005 Orange Revolution represented Ukraine’s first decisive step toward aligning with the West and escaping the Russian sphere of influence. But pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych’s comeback as President in 2010 saw renewed eastern orientation. His rejection of an EU Association Agreement in 2013 triggered mass protests against this reversal, setting Ukraine back on a Western trajectory with vast geopolitical implications.
The Euromaidan Revolution
The immediate root of the Ukraine crisis was the Euromaidan uprising in Kyiv against Yanukovych’s corrupt Russia-friendly regime. The mass unrest erupted in November 2013 after Yanukovych refused to sign an EU association deal, opting for a Russian bailout instead. The scene of vast crowds filling the Maidan (Independence Square) created a revolutionary atmosphere, with protests rapidly expanding to demand Yanukovych’s overthrow.
Despite the movement’s pronounced pro-EU orientation, the drivers of Euromaidan were more anti-authoritarian than pro-Western. The corrupt Yanukovych regime had alienated Ukrainians across the political spectrum. In particular, its oligarchic abuses and rejection of an EU path that enjoyed wide backing mobilized mass opposition (Kuzio 2016: 413). With protests turning increasingly violent, the climax came in late February 2014 as security forces cracked down, killing over 100 protestors. This created a revolutionary situation, leading to Yanukovych’s ouster and flight to Russia.
While predominantly a democratic uprising, Euromaidan also amplified Ukraine’s ethno-linguistic divides. Yanukovych drew his main support from Russophone eastern regions with close ties to Russia. In contrast, western areas where Ukrainian language and identity predominated were hotbeds of pro-Euromaidan activism. This regional polarization foreshadowed conflict, as ethnic Russians in the east resisted the new post-Yanukovych order.
Indeed, Moscow portrayed Euromaidan as a “fascist coup” orchestrated by Western powers to wrest Ukraine from Russia’s orbit (Tsygankov 2015). While exaggerating the Western role, Putin exploited real fears of Ukrainian nationalism threatening the interests of the Russophone community. Russia’s forceful reactions in Crimea and the Donbas stemmed partly from alarm over this perceived threat, entrenching the regional divide.
Overall, Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution represented a seismic geopolitical shift. Russia saw the prospect of Ukraine joining the West as completely unacceptable, while the US and EU supported this path. With both sides viewing Ukraine’s orientation as a vital interest, conditions were ripe for the zero-sum showdown that would break out in 2014.
Section III: Applying and Evaluating Realpolitik Perspectives
This section applies realist perspectives on power, interests and ethics to examine Russian and Western policies amidst the fallout of Ukraine’s revolution. It assesses realpolitik as an explanatory and prescriptive framework across the two main theaters of conflict – Crimea and the Donbas. Identifying shortcomings of realism, it suggests refinements to realpolitik theory to improve analytical traction on the empirical realities.
Realist Views of Russia’s Actions: Crimea as Coercive Realpolitik
From a realist standpoint, Russia’s forceful actions to regain control over Crimea clearly represent classical realpolitik. Faced with an unacceptable loss of strategic influence over Ukraine, realists see Russia’s extralegal intervention in Crimea as an unsentimental power play to defend national interests (Mearsheimer 2014). Offensive realists particularly would endorse this assertive use of power to capitalize on Western weakness and maximize Russia’s regional clout (Mankoff 2014). Russia’s disregard for legal niceties and ethics aligns with the realpolitik dictum that interests take precedence over ideals.
Specifically, realists highlight several factors motivating Russia’s behavior as rational power politics. Firstly, the prospect of NATO expanding into Ukraine posed an unacceptable threat to Russian security on its borders. Preventing Western encroachment was thus an understandable strategic interest (Sakwa 2015). Secondly, the presence of Crimea’s Russian naval base in Sevastopol gave Moscow major incentives to maintain control through direct annexation if needed (Allison 2014). Thirdly, Crimea’s ethnic Russian majority provided local support for Russian intervention. Fourthly, the new government’s weakness left it unable to defend Crimea from stealth invasion (Treisman 2016). Taken together, these conditions made a forceful realpolitik seizure of Crimea both enticing and feasible for Russia.
From this perspective, Russia’s denials of involvement were tactical deceptions that all great powers practice. Annexing Crimea resolutely defended Russia’s interests. The coercive display of hard power overturned the “strategic loss” of Euromaidan in a masterclass of realpolitik (Trenin 2014). It secured Sevastopol as an enduring strategic asset and reasserted Russia’s Eurasian sphere of influence. Russia profited at the West’s expense from this decisive machtpolitik, gaining domestic prestige and regional sway.
So in realist terms, Russia’s approach in Crimea represents a successful case study in how great powers ruthlessly pursue national interests when vital security concerns are at stake. Realpolitik recognizes no room for idealism when core strategic interests clash in a zero-sum contest for geopolitical influence. Russia’s policy aligns with realism’s priorities of power, security and national interest above any ethical considerations.
Evaluating Realism: The Problem of Legitimacy in Crimea
However, realism’s focus on brute power as the overriding factor falters in fully explaining the contested political outcomes in Crimea. A narrow realpolitik perspective overlooks the lasting challenges of legitimacy stemming from Russia’s coercive annexation. This highlights the need to refine realism by accounting for normative variables like legitimacy alongside material capabilities.
Undeniably, the stealth invasion demonstrated Russia’s clear military dominance in the peninsula. But political legitimacy has proven more elusive. Russia’s attempted justification of responding to local unrest was somewhat plausible in the euphoric aftermath of annexation. Yet polls over time show that Kiev’s rule was still seen as legitimate by a substantial portion of Crimeans (Gorodnenko 2015). Ukraine maintains that the annexation remains illegal, refusing to relinquish claims or recognize Russia’s control as legitimate. The coercive annexation also received overwhelming condemnation internationally, with only a handful of states recognizing Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea (Roselle et al 2014).
This lack of legitimacy has imposed enduring political, economic and reputational costs on Russia’s control of Crimea. Internationally isolated, Crimea remains under sanctions limiting investment and development. Russia has assumed a massive financial burden subsidizing this dependent region. Continued Ukrainian resistance and international condemnation also risk creating instability that threatens Russia’s interests in the long-term.
As this demonstrates, securing enduring political control over territory requires more than just decisive shows of hard power – the focus of an overly simplistic realpolitik framework. Establishing legitimate rule also rests on eliciting some level of normative consent from the local population and broader international community. Raw coercion absent normative justifications is an unstable basis for lasting control. While realism helps explain Russia’s motivations and capabilities in Crimea, it does not fully account for ensuing challenges to the legitimacy and sustainability of its annexation.
This highlights the need for realist theory to better incorporate ideational factors like legitimacy and norms alongside the material aspects of power. Rather than dismissing ethics as irrelevant, a sophisticated contemporary realpolitik must recognize their instrumental effects on interests. In Crimea, augmenting realist analysis with attention to the normative dimensions of state authority offers more explanatory insight. Doing so can improve realism’s practical policy prescriptions, for instance by counselling engagement with dissenting voices or limiting coercion to build sustainable political control.
Incorporating legitimacy as an ideational constraint allows realpolitik to more accurately reflect empirical realities and adapt to modern contexts. This refined analytical approach neither negates realism’s core insights nor embraces idealism. It simply develops realism into a more complete and nuanced theory of how power pursues interests in an interdependent world still significantly structured by institutions and norms, not just material capabilities. Realist statecraft requires combining power and legitimacy to effectively achieve lasting gains.
The Ukraine Conflict in the Donbas: Russia’s Hybrid Warfare Tactics
The contested Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbas, have seen prolonged conflict between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian state. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, protests by pro-Russian groups in the Donbas escalated into an armed insurgency in April 2014, with rebels declaring ‘people’s republics’ in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk.
While Russia denies direct military involvement, extensive evidence indicates that the Kremlin provides crucial support to sustain the separatist rebellion (Toler 2018). Moscow likely aims to destabilize Ukraine and maintain influence over this eastern industrial heartland. However, Russia has avoided overt invasion, instead pursuing a campaign of hybrid warfare in the Donbas region. This combines indirect aggression with non-military tactics like propaganda, economic pressure, and political subversion (Lanoszka 2016).
From a realist lens, Russia’s hybrid warfare strategy represents another case of realpolitik in action, tailored to the specific realities of the Donbas. Direct invasion to annex the Donbas outright was not a viable option. Given its larger size and population, Russia would have faced much higher military costs occupying the Donbas compared to Crimea. With the element of surprise gone after Crimea, Ukraine’s army and fierce nationalist volunteers would fiercely resist Russian forces invading overtly (Charap 2015).
Rather than seek outright territorial gains, Russia likely aims to keep eastern Ukraine destabilized and outside of Western institutions. Renewing frozen conflicts prevents full European integration, a classic realpolitik objective to maintain regional sway (Popescu 2015). Russian officials can also use the Donbas conflict as leverage, easing or intensifying pressure to extract concessions in negotiations with Kyiv.
To avoid becoming directly embroiled in a messy ground war, Russia has employed hybrid warfare tactics blending conventional and unconventional aspects of conflict (Galeotti 2016). Providing arms, advisors, and even regular troops on rotational tours allows Russia to fuel the Donbas insurgency by proxy. Combatants with “volunteer” status offer plausible deniability, while preventing Ukraine from exercising its full conventional superiority.
Russia also uses non-military dimensions of hybrid warfare to great effect, including propaganda, economic disruption, and political subversion. Manipulative Russian state media maintains support for separatism, while distorting Western coverage (Pomerantsev 2014). Trade cutoffs and gas feuds exert economic pressure to keep Ukraine off-balance. And infiltration of Ukraine’s political scene exacerbates corruption and dysfunction in Kyiv. Together, these hybrid tactics have mired eastern Ukraine in protracted conflict on Russia’s terms.
Evaluating Realism: Concept Stretching Coercion in Hybrid Warfare
Realists can interpret Russia’s hybrid warfare in the Donbas as a prudent approach well-suited to conditions on the ground. Subversion and proxy warfare are nothing new; realpolitik readily embraces deception and irregular techniques alongside overt force. However, while realism retains explanatory power, Russia’s hybrid tactics necessitate refining concepts of coercion to fit this complex reality.
Specifically, the coercion concept requires modification when applied to hybrid warfare. Traditional definitions of coercion involve overt military threats or demonstrable use of force (Freedman 1998). Yet Russia maintains enough distance and deniability about its influence over Donbas separatists that Ukraine and Western powers hesitate to retaliate or escalate as they might against outright Russian aggression. This frustrates Ukraine’s efforts at deterrence.
Moscow can also carefully calibrate levels of support and restraint on its proxies to apply coercive pressure on Kyiv below the threshold of justifying a major escalation. This frustrates negotiations, with Russia insisting the conflict is an internal civil war even as it holds influence over the separatists. These dynamics suggest coercion under conditions of hybrid warfare requires expanding beyond direct military force to also encompass deliberately ambiguous kinds of pressure.
Integrating these nuances into realism’s analysis of coercion allows sharper understanding of how hybrid warfare alters power projections between states. This highlights the need for ongoing refinement of key theoretical concepts over time as contexts evolve rather than retaining rigid classical definitions. Doing so enables realism to explain complex phenomena like Russia’s hybrid tactics that integrate irregular and unconventional aspects of conflict.
In this case, modifying coercion to incorporate diffuse proxy and indirect forms of pressure aligns realpolitik theory better with messy hybrid warfare realities than an overly narrow construct confined to overt interstate force. Adapting realism through this kind of conceptual evolution allows it to stay relevant as a framework for statecraft in the modern context marked by hybridity in warfare and power projection. Rather than ossifying into rigid orthodoxy, realpolitik must remain a living tradition amenable to reflecting shifting complexities of power in global politics.
Towards a Refined Realpolitik: Balancing Ethics, Interests and Power
The case of Ukraine highlights several key limitations of classical realpolitik perspectives in fully explaining complex realities. However, this need not invalidate realism’s core insights concerning power and interests. Rather, analysis points to refining realism to address intersubjective norms alongside material capabilities and to incorporate ideational variables like legitimacy. Doing so allows a modern realpolitik paradigm evolution, offering sharper policy prescriptions balancing ethics and interests.
Even in an anarchic system where self-interest dominates, shared norms and perceptions of legitimacy constrain behavior and shape outcomes. Interests are subjectively constructed through ideas and interactions, not predefined by material structure (Wendt 1992). Hence realists must take greater account of sociological and normative variables when analyzing how states pursue interests. Absent shared norms, material preponderance risks being a hollow source of lasting power and influence over other actors. And norms carry weight even for great powers, who require a degree of legitimation to translate coercion into enduring political outcomes.
Equally, concepts like coercion require periodic reassessment as the nature of power and its projection evolves. Hybrid warfare and other contemporary contexts not envisioned by classical realists necessitate analytical flexibility, not rigid adherence. Refining realism through conceptual evolution enhances its ability to explain and navigate today’s complex power realities.
Does this imply abandoning realism for idealism? No. It remains vital to acknowledge egoistic motives, competing interests, and power’s primacy in global politics. Ethics cannot entirely displace realism in conducting foreign policy (Nye 2015: 205-210). Moralizing crusades divorced from strategic reality run aground in quagmires. Yet realism should not dismiss legitimacy and identity as irrelevant to the pursuit of national interests. Power can build stable political orders only when grounded in a degree of normative consent.
Hence for both analytical and prescriptive value, the most sophisticated contemporary realpolitik combines realism and idealism in ethical, interest-based statecraft (Kissinger 1994). It recognizes power’s limits absent normative legitimacy, embracing pragmatism over moral absolutism, and flexibility over rigidity in strategic concepts. This refined realpolitik offers the most promising basis for balancing ethics and interests to manage crises like Ukraine. Neither crusading liberalism nor crude realpolitik alone suffices. But an evolved realpolitik paradigm can potentiate statecraft balancing norms and power to secure realistic compromise solutions.
In examining the Ukraine crisis as a case study, this paper aimed to test and develop realist concepts of power politics at play in the changing dynamics of global affairs. Analysis found classical realpolitik retains vital insights on national interests and the utility of power. Russia’s expansionist actions certainly reflect a realist logic of defending strategic interests by capitalizing on Western disarray. However, empirical examination also revealed realism’s blind spots, including on the significance of legitimacy and the need to refine concepts like coercion as contexts evolve.
Integrating ideational factors and avoiding rigid theories allows improving realism as an analytical and prescriptive guide. The Ukraine conflict underscores how even great powers cannot ignore legitimacy nor separate power from ethics entirely. This highlights the imperative of balancing ideals and interests through ethical yet pragmatic realpolitik. Statesmanship requires marrying Rawlsian reasonable pluralism with Machiavellian shrewdness.
On this basis, Ukraine points to several lessons for resolving acute crises between clashing interests. Compromise solutions are needed recognizing legitimate interests and realities on all sides. For Russia, this means acknowledging the limits of imposed power absent consent and engaging with dissenting voices. For the West, it necessitates applying its leverage more prudently to socialize Russia as a partner, not just punish it as an adversary. And for Ukraine, managing conflicting identities under an inclusive national vision can consolidate its hard-fought gains as an independent state.
Ultimately the tragic violence still consuming eastern Ukraine demands urgent resolution. While daunting regional realities persist, realist tenets of prudence and restraint remain essential. By learning from the complex interplay of power and norms in Ukraine, leaders can pursue realistic compromises upholding sovereignty and pluralism. Through ethical yet pragmatic realpolitik – leveraging power and legitimacy in equal measure – peace may finally take root even in the war-torn Donbas.
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