Michael McFaul and Robert Person on Putin, Russia, and the War in Ukraine

Michael McFaul and Robert Person
Robert Person (left) and Michael McFaul (right)

Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, is professor of political science at Stanford University, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. His most recent book is From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia (2018). Robert Person is associate professor of international relations at the U.S. Military Academy, director of its international affairs curriculum, and faculty affiliate at its Modern War Institute. Their essay “What Putin Fears Most” was published as an online exclusive from the Journal of Democracy in February and was included in the April 2022 issue.

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There are a lot of people quietly who are deeply frustrated with this war. Every rich person in Russia with one or two exceptions are frustrated with this war. I think many of the so-called liberal technocratic elites in the government are frustrated with this war. Lots of regional leaders are frustrated with this war. It’s not just the vocal opposition. I think there’s a quiet minority and maybe even majority that is exhausted with what Putin has done.

Michael McFaul

Key Highlights

  • Introduction 0:48
  • Personal Account from Michael McFaul 3:16
  • Putin’s Objectives 7:44
  • What would Russia be like without Putin? 12:22
  • Challenges for democracy in Ukraine 20:10
  • Effectiveness of sanctions 24:15
  • Where is the Russian Revolution going? 27:11

Podcast Transcript

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has lasted almost five months at this point. Over that time the war has already gone through a few different phases. The war began as a blitzkrieg that touched every part of Ukraine. Lately Russia has focused on a slow and methodical conquest of the Donbas. Meanwhile, new weapons offer hope to turn the momentum of the war once again. 

Today’s conversation revisits the War in Ukraine. We reflect on what we have learned over the past five months and how that changes our opinions about the war. And there is no one I’d like to reexamine thoughts on Russia and Ukraine with more than Michael McFaul and Robert Person. Michael is the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, a professor of political science at Stanford University, and director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Rob is an associate professor of international relations at the U.S. Military Academy. 

Our conversation touches on some big picture ideas about Russia, Ukraine and the war. Anybody who follows Michael McFaul knows he already has an extensive media presence. So, I wanted to ask some of those difficult questions traditional media outlets don’t have time to tackle. Hopefully, you enjoy our expansive conversation that spans ideas about democracy, history, and a few counterfactuals. 

If you want to hear more, check out the bonus content available at Patreon. Rob and I extend our conversation after Michael had to go. You can find a link in the show notes or just look up Democracy Paradox at patreon.com. Like always you can find a full transcript of the podcast at democracyparadox.com. Let me also emphasize the views expressed in this interview are the our own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government. With that said… Here is my conversation with Robert Person and Michael McFaul…


Robert Person and Michael McFaul, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Michael McFaul

Thanks for having us… or thanks for having me. I’ll let Rob speak for himself.

Robert Person

Yeah, it’s great to be here with both of you.


Well, I want to start with Michael for just a moment here. Having read From Cold War to Hot Peace, it’s such a fascinating book because it’s both a personal memoir and almost like a history of America’s relations with Russia during a very pivotal time. Moreover, you document a very important moment for you personally and a turning point for Russo-American foreign relations. You actually write, “In Prague, I had been the author of the Reset, the driver of closer relations with Russia. In Moscow, I was now a revolutionary, a usurper, and Vladimir Putin’s personal foe.”

It’s such a striking line and it’s hard to explain it without really giving an example of some of the experiences that you had. So why don’t we start there with just a personal experience. Michael, can you tell us a story that helps explain Putin’s animosity towards the United States and to yourself personally in your role as ambassador when you were in Russia?

Michael McFaul

Well, sure. Thanks for having me and thanks for reading the book. I’m glad you referenced that it is the arc of the relationship over 30 years. The Coda, the ending, the tragic ending, is about the most difficult time in US-Russian relations since deep into the cold war and it only got worse since I finished writing that book. I go through the periods where there was more cooperation, obviously in the Gorbachev years, the Yeltsin years, and even the Medvedev years. I was in Prague when we signed the new START treaty. It was a peak moment in many ways in terms of cooperation. By the way, our societies also agreed with that back then. Sixty percent of Russians thought we had a good relationship and a pretty similar number of Americans felt the same way.

It deteriorated rapidly over the last two years after I arrived in Moscow. I do want to get to your question in a minute with the specifics, but the why it did, I think is important, because it’s related. Two things happened. One, Putin came back and two, in December 2011, there was a falsified election. It was a kind of normal Russian level of falsification only this time there were smartphones, social media, and the middle class in big cities protested it. So, you had hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of Moscow and some of those people, Justin, are people I know well. Some of them I had known for decades.

So, when I arrived in Moscow, Putin blamed us for those protests. He blamed the United States, he blamed Obama, he blamed Secretary Clinton, and he blamed me even before I arrived for my first day of work. I remember it was a long weekend because it was Martin Luther King weekend, so we had the Monday off. We arrived with my family. We’re really excited to be there by the way. This is going to be a great new chapter in all of our lives, my wife and two sons. So, we’re kind of touring Spaso House, our new home, which is this incredible place with all kinds of history in it. There’s photos of Kissinger and Reagan and Brezhnev. I mean, it is in and of itself a museum of US-Soviet relations and US-Russian relations.

So, that night, Sunday night, I turned on the TV just to kind of get my Russian back up to speed. I hadn’t taken Russian formally since I was an undergraduate at Stanford. So, it’s been a long time. That was when I knew things were going to be different, because there was a hit piece by a guy named Misha Leontiev. Somebody, again, I’ve known forever. This was not my first rodeo as Ambassador in Russia or the Soviet Union. I have some deep history with a lot of people including those that later went on to work for Putin. He was one of them. At the time he worked for Channel One in Russia.

So, it was basically explaining to the millions of Russians about my arrival that I was there to foment revolution and to coordinate a revolution inside Russia. Two decades ago, I had written a book, a very academic book, called Russia’s Unfinished Revolution and Leontiev said, ‘Well, now he’s come back to finish the revolution.’ That was when I knew that life was going to be difficult as the new US ambassador in Russia.


So, Rob, I want to turn to you. The paper that Michael and you wrote is called, “What Putin Fears.” But I think one of the purposes in writing about what Putin fears was to explain why Putin chose to go to war. It’s been a few months since you wrote that paper and maybe there’s some second guessing or some revision that you might have in terms of why Putin really chose to go to war. But I’d like to know from you why is it that you feel that Putin decided to actually invade Ukraine and whether or not Russia’s objectives in this war have really changed.

Robert Person

Yeah, that’s an excellent set of questions. You know, I think in general, as academics and policy makers we always have to revisit our own conclusions, our own assumptions and be willing to revise them when we find evidence to the contrary. But with that said, I still believe that at its core Russia’s motivations and objectives in this conflict are unchanged for many, many years. Going back at least to the Colored Revolutions, the Orange Revolution of 2004 and 2005, it has been clear to me that Russia and particularly Putin have essentially sought to control Ukrainian politics, to include Ukraine in a privileged and exclusive sphere of influence to grant Russia essentially a veto at the foreign and domestic policy making table in Kiev.

So, over those years, they’ve tried a variety of tactics and methods to sort of bring that about, to essentially achieve in Ukraine a puppet government that is compliant and willing to do whatever command is issued in the Kremlin. You have heavy Russian involvement and manipulation of the Ukrainian electoral process that ultimately leads to the Orange Revolution and ultimately that’s unsuccessful. You’ve got several years of rocky relations. You have again in 2013 and 2014 this critical moment when the Ukrainian people make clear that they want their destiny to face westward. They want their future to be a European one. That’s fundamentally unacceptable to Putin and the pressure that he places on Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych ultimately leads to the Maidan Revolution and this extraordinary military intervention, the seizure of Crimea, and the instigation of a thinly veiled sort of covert intervention in the Donbas.

So, from then on through the combination of the conflict itself in the Donbas, an ongoing sort of series of destabilizing measures, I think Putin’s objective throughout all of that was to hopefully generate enough domestic instability in Ukraine such that the democratically elected government in Kiev would somehow sort of topple on its own for whatever reason. By late 2021, it appears that Putin had grown impatient with that approach and was ready to take matters into his own hands and provoke this unjustified and open outright military intervention and invasion. So, Mike and I argue in the article that even back then in January and February, as we were working on it, it was clear that his objectives were to go in very quickly, strike hard, drive to Kiev, and ultimately overthrow the Zelensky government, the democratically elected government of Ukraine, and install some pro-Russian regime.

That part obviously failed spectacularly. So, now I think we’re in a phase of the conflict where they’ve sort of stepped back tactically. They’ve sort of reoriented their objectives, looking first for territorial consolidation in the east and the south of Ukraine. But I don’t believe for a minute that Putin has backed off of that ultimate objective of overthrowing Ukraine’s government and wrenching the country back into his orbit. If anything, I think it’s gotten a little bit scarier and more dangerous that perhaps he’s shifted from a strategy of regime change to one of essentially trying to provoke the collapse of the Ukrainian state. Some of the measures that he’s taken to essentially choke the Ukrainian economy and blockade the ports are, I think, indicative of a situation where he is still attempting to just blow up the whole project.


So, Mike, in Rob’s answer, he focuses a lot on Putin, Putin’s beliefs, and Putin’s attitudes. It’s something that a lot of us do. We refer to Putin rather than to Russia. And as I went through a lot of your work, a lot of your past articles, I even went back and read Power and Purpose (one of your other books that you’ve written), individuals seem to have an incredible influence in the arc of history for you. I mean, it comes up again and again in your work. You wrote in a recent article in the Journal of Democracy, “Individuals and choices matter, even if they sometimes generate unintended consequences.” So, is this war, is this direction that Russia is going in terms of this invasion, is this just Vladimir Putin’s vision, Vladimir Putin’s idea, or if he’s taken out of the picture is this something that the Russian people or the Russian elites still would want to do?

Michael McFaul

Well, that’s a big, hard question. Let me try to unpack it a little bit and build a little bit on Rob’s answer about what’s changed since we wrote our article – That’s a great question. The first thing I would say is individuals don’t only matter. You know, there’s such a dichotomy in this debate about this invasion with realists versus liberals. It gets quasi-religious sometimes in the way that people support one camp or the other. It doesn’t feel so scientific to me always. It feels very ideological. People are committed to an argument and, ‘Well, I’m going to keep with it for 30 years, you know, no matter what.’ My plea is that could we please get beyond that?

So, as part of my plea, I would say, of course, everything begins with power. Power matters, too. So as a first basis of analysis, irrespective of who the individuals are in Russia, and I would say this about other great powers too, without the power to do certain things, it doesn’t matter who the leader is. Right? But to say that power is the only thing that matters, that to me just seems naive. The counterfactuals just add up so quickly that just seems a very simplistic argument that needs refinement, that needs amendment. If you think about any other thing we study scientifically, to say that one thing causes everything in the world, most theories have moved beyond that. I would like us to try to do that in studying the international system as well.

Now to your question, run the counterfactual. If somebody else, and let’s make it very explicit. The best counterfactuals are those when you just have to change something a little bit and it’s plausible that it could be changed. In the Russia case, imagine that instead of choosing Vladimir Putin, Boris Yeltsin shows Boris Nemtsov. That’s not a wild counterfactual, because that in fact was his plan. We know this. From historical archives now it was clear as day that that’s what he wanted to do. Then, we call them exogenous shocks, something out of the blue happened. It was the August 1998 financial crash.

So, the government that was in place had to resign. They then put in place of communist for a while and then they ended up with Vladimir Putin as the prime minister. I just want to remind your listeners when he was appointed prime minister and then acting president hardly anybody knew anything about him. So, the idea that Putin wants you to believe is that there was this massive demand for Putin and his worldview. Nothing could be further from the truth. The oligarchs, the horrible oligarchs that Putin now hates are the ones that actually helped to choose him, to make him president. I raise that counterfactual, because Boris Nemtsov is not just some abstract figure. He was a popular figure. I think he could have won that election. And he also was my friend. I knew him well until he was assassinated in 2015. There’s no doubt in my mind that if Boris Nemtsov was president in 2014 or 2022 that Russia would not have invaded Ukraine.


So, Rob, I’ve heard Mike make this argument before. That if Boris Nemtsov was the president of Russia, that Russia would much more likely have remained a democracy or at least been a democracy much longer. This kind of gets back to the heart of your article. That is that if Russia was democratic, that they would behave differently in international relations. That the thing that Putin fears most is a democratic Ukraine. If Russia was a democracy, do you feel that Russia would behave differently in terms of international relations? Do you feel that Russia would be a different type of hegemonic power within Eurasia?

Robert Person

Absolutely. Without a doubt. In the social sciences, we rarely if ever speak of laws. We don’t have the luxury of the law of gravity and some of the other laws of physics. But one of the things that comes closest to lawlike status in international relations is this idea, this empirical fact, that democracies don’t fight wars with other democracies. There’s a robust statistical relationship borne out by all sorts of deep case studies.

So, the logic is something along the following. In democracies, we have very powerful norms and institutions and frankly, a culture of how we settle problems or how we should settle problems which is nonviolently. We don’t resort to violence to settle our political disputes. We’re certainly not supposed to storm the seat of government and exercise violence against democratically elected officials. No. We compromise. We negotiate. We find common ground and so on and so forth. So, because those are the very powerful norms that govern how we settle things within democracies, we tend to extend that same courtesy, if you will, to other democracies, because they’re like us.

You can see this extraordinary period of peace in Western Europe that for centuries was a hotbed of great power war. But since the post-World War II period thanks to the proliferation of democracies and international institutions it’s been the most extraordinary period of peace and prosperity. So, I have no doubt that if Russia were a consolidated stable democracy, that it would approach the world very different and it would understand sort of its relationship with the world in a much different and more peaceful way.

I think this sort of ties back to a really important that Mike just made which is to say that, yes, there are all sorts of international stimuli that countries sort of have to deal with such as power, security, living in a rough neighborhood. All of these things do matter, but how those stimuli get processed and acted upon often is the product of domestic level considerations. Perhaps it’s the political regime, perhaps it’s individual leaders, but I have to imagine a large sort of continental country, like Russia, lives in the same neighborhood, same geography, same sort of objective external conditions, would process those stimuli very differently if it were a democracy.

So, in that counterfactual world, yes, I think we would be in a very different position. Now it’s a completely separate and deep old debate that I know Mike has long been involved. Why didn’t democracy succeed in Russia? But clearly it matters when it comes to their foreign policy and behavior.


Let me ask a follow up where we look at the other side of the coin. Instead of just Russia, we look at Ukraine because this war has been described as a conflict between autocracy and democracy. Russia represents autocracy and Ukraine represents the battle for democracy. Ukraine’s obviously going to face a lot of challenges in its democracy, not just now, but also whenever a peace is established. What are the prospects for Ukraine to remain committed to democracy after this conflict is over? What challenges is it going to face and what does it need to do to preserve its democracy?

Mike McFaul

So, lots to tackle here. By the way, I wrote my first book about Ukraine in 2006 just so you know. So, I’ve been looking at Ukraine for a long time in this comparative way and I interact with the government pretty much on a daily basis these days. I would say a couple of things. As the war rages on in the barbaric way that it is, Ukrainians are still struggling with their democracy today. They’re still arguing about it. There’s been some recent news about an appointment of a prosecutor for corruption that Zelensky hasn’t made that he’s been criticized by. What’s to happen with the oligarchs after the war and what’s to happen with their media? So, democracy in Ukraine has been interrupted in some ways. All the television stations now all share one channel. I appear on there fairly frequently.

But it’s still going on. I think that’s important for people to understand. It’s not like they declared that they’re going to have emergency rule forever. There’s still parliamentary politics and there’s still independent media in Ukraine today. But I would say that the challenge will be great, because reconstruction in a post-war Ukraine is going to be a tremendously giant operation. There was just a conference on July 4th and 5th in Lugano looking at the reconstruction efforts. I’m an external advisor for the Ukrainian government’s plan and they’re measuring it in $700, $800, $900 billion for what they think they’ll need for reconstruction. So, at a time when the west is exhausted with providing Ukraine with resources. That fight over resources and reconstruction is going to be challenging for Ukrainian democracy. There’s no doubt in my mind about that.

Having said all that, I do think if you look at opinion polls and you follow kind of domestic politics inside Ukraine today, there is unity forged because of this outside invader. That’s a good thing in terms of the identity, the Ukrainian identity, the Ukrainian nation, and that will help, I think, consolidate democracy. Number two Zelensky has emerged, I think, as an extraordinary leader. Those are good things in terms of democratic consolidation.

But on the opposite ledger, just to echo something Rob said, I don’t know when this war will end. I don’t know where it will end. I don’t know where the borders will be. I did want to add, a little bit out of sequence here, I think one of the things that’s changed watching Putin and things he’s talking about is he almost doesn’t talk about NATO expansion anymore at all. Instead, he’s really shifted to this more imperial language about uniting former Russian territories that used to be part of them. That’s something that we touched on in our article, but it has grown over time because of the failures that he had in achieving those bigger objectives of uniting all Ukrainians, because they’re just Russians with accents. Well, he failed at that. He failed at overthrowing the Zelensky government.

So, now he’s more focused on this imperial argument about taking the Donbas. But even if let’s say the war ends in a stalemate and maybe not even a solution, you know, some kind of Korean outcome, I don’t want to predict what a way might be. There’s no doubt in my mind that Putin will continue using whatever means he has to continue to undermine Ukrainian democratic institutions. So, they will have to face that while they’re trying to rebuild their country and consolidate their democracy.


Are the sanctions working? Are they doing what we were hoping that they would accomplish?

Robert Person

One of the challenges when it comes to sanctions, at least conceptually, is, again, you have to think in terms of counterfactuals and you have to think in terms of the objective. So, there are many that very early on in the war said, ‘Well, sanctions or the threat of sanctions failed to deter Russia from invading, therefore sanctions writ large are a failure. We couldn’t credibly promise sufficient economic pain in order to get him to change his calculus. Therefore, it’s a failure.’ A little bit deeper into the war you say, ‘Okay, the point of sanctions is no longer deterrence. He pulled the trigger. He crossed the frontier.’

So, it might be tempting to say, ‘Okay, now the point of sanctions is essentially compellence. We want to coerce and compel Russia to leave Ukraine.’ So, we’re going to bring this economic pressure, a variety of different tools, many of which are pretty extraordinary in that they’ve never been used against an economy as large and interconnected in the global economy as Russia’s.

So, it’s tempting now especially as the conflict drags on, as we’re facing our own economic headwinds globally, it’s tempting to say sanctions have failed because they didn’t compel Putin to reverse course or to alter his objectives. The counterfactual, of course, is what would Russia have achieved, what would they do in the absence of sanctions? And I have no doubt that Russia certainly would have felt much more emboldened to take even more drastic measures had they essentially been met with little to no Western response. So, that certainly matters, but it also then points to the third objective and frankly, the long term objective with sanctions is that now it’s essentially about degrading Russia’s ability to continue fighting this war and to afford it.

That’s partly through export restrictions. Denying them the technologies that they need for their military to continue producing weapons and the like, but it’s also slowly over time eroding their economic performance and capacity. This is a long-term game and that’s sort of a message that I think is a critical one. It’s a tough one to sell to Western publics right now as we are starting to sort of feel some economic challenges for a variety of reasons. But this is a long strategy over time to slowly degrade Russia’s ability to fight this war and, hopefully, through that way undermine, if not the regime’s willingness to fight this war, then to undermine the Russian population’s willingness to continue supporting or being complicit with that regime in its war.


Mike, you mentioned that as ambassador to Russia, when you first got to Russia, that they brought up a book that you wrote about the unfinished revolution. They said that you were there to finish the revolution. There’s an interesting line in your book, Power and Purpose that you wrote with James Goldgeier. Near the end you write, “The Russian Revolution remains unfinished and we should be humble in our assessments of where it is going.” It’s a fascinating line, especially in light of what they said about you, because the recent revolution that toppled the USSR, I mean, that’s recent history compared to something like the Russian Revolution. The idea of that even being unfinished. So, with this new chapter of Vladimir Putin becoming even more autocratic within Russia and invading Ukraine. Where is the Russian revolution itself going today?

Michael McFaul

Again, great question, Justin. We could do this for hours, but let’s really do this again sometime. A couple of things I’d say. So, that book was published, if I remember 2002, 2003, almost 20 years ago. And I think your sense in trying to give our listeners here today a sense of time being long is important when talking about revolutions. When I talk about the Soviet revolution, by the way, it was a triple transformation. It went from empire to nation states, from command economy to capitalism, and from autocracy, dictatorship, to democracy, all at the same time. We should have expected, as I’ve written for decades, that it was going to be messy and take a long time.

Number two, the first piece I ever wrote, if I’m not mistaken, where I used the word revolution to describe what was going on in the Soviet Union was in August 1990. So, a year before the Soviet Union collapsed. What I did, because you just did it, so I want to do it, is I compared what was happening in the Soviet Union at the time I was living there back and forth with what happened in the Russian Revolution and the French Revolution. Those were the three comparisons. And there was this book I was reading at the time. I think it’s on my shelf right now by Crane Brinton. It’s called The Anatomy of Revolution and he talks about the various periods of revolution.

So, first there’s the state breakdown with splits among the elites. Then the moderates takeover. Then the extremists takeover, the real revolutionaries, the Jacobins, and then there’s a backlash. Thermidor was the phrase that he used. It’s a word from the French Revolution. So, as I was living and toggling back and forth between Palo Alto and Moscow, I had spent the academic year 1990-91 in Moscow at Moscow State University.

But I wrote this piece right before I went and I said, ‘This is a revolution. This is not just a reform.’ At the time everybody was focused on Gorbachev and I was like Gorbachev has no future. This is going to break down. There’s going to be the disintegration of the Soviet Empire. That is inevitable. That’s going to happen. The moderates are going to take over and then there will be, after the radicals try to break everything up right away with shock therapy (I didn’t know these words at the time) and try to go too fast too far, there will be a Thermidor.

Moreover, I said, ‘There will be a strong man that will come into that mess just like there was with Napoleon and Stalin in those other revolutions.’ I didn’t know his name was Putin. This is a decade before anybody had ever heard of him, but there are those tendencies. That’s why I think your point that we don’t know how it ends is still true. By the way, tragically, that piece was published in the San Jose Mercury News. So, not many people have read it, but I will send it to you all so you don’t think I’m just making all this up. But I do think it is true.

This is the Thermidor. This is the last hurrah. By the way, Thermidor was a blending of the old and the new. It wasn’t counterrevolution. Stalin blended things from the past with the revolution, same with Napoleon. I see Putin as the backlash to the revolution, promising stability in a different way, and fusing things from the past with things in the future. He’s done that, I think, in a rather creative way, by the way, invoking some symbols from the Soviet Union, with some new things about a new Imperial Russia. What I don’t know with certainty is what comes after Putin and the Thermidor. But I do know that it’s not inevitable that Putinism as a system of government will be in power for decades.

In fact, if I was pressed, I would say that’s much more unlikely than something else. You know, you think about the death of Stalin in 53. you think about the death of Brezhnev. They were the last two leaders that had a long stay ruling that country. In both cases it took a while, by the way it didn’t happen right away in either case. But eventually you had a reaction against Stalinism and against Brezhnevism. I think that is much more likely than a continuation of Putinism. I think Putinism has exhausted itself. It’s exhausted itself domestically. When you have to arrest everybody… I currently have four personal friends of mine arrested by Vladimir Putin today. Five, if you count an American friend of mine, Marc Fogel.

When you have to go after everybody, that means you’re very insecure about your system. If guys like Navalny are threatening you, that means you’re worried about your regime. A confident leader wouldn’t worry about guys like Navalny. Putin’s worried. Then second, remember, he’s been around for 22 years. He hasn’t built a political party. There’s no obvious successor. There are a lot of people quietly who are deeply frustrated with this war. Every rich person in Russia with one or two exceptions are frustrated with this war. I think many of the so-called liberal technocratic elites in the government are frustrated with this war. Lots of regional leaders are frustrated with this war. It’s not just the vocal opposition. I think there’s a quiet minority and maybe even majority that is exhausted with what Putin has done. So, in the era that begins after he’s the leader, I think will be, one, tumultuous and, two, perhaps more Western oriented and more democratically oriented.


Thanks so much for being here, guys. Thank you so much, Mike and Rob.

Michael McFaul

 Thanks for having us.

Robert Person

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