'Anti-Terrorist' Operation Arsen Avakov ATO Crimea Donbass Fascism International Relations Maidan Nazism Neo-Fascism Oleksandr Turchynov Petro Poroshenko Putin Regime Change Regime Transformation Revolution Russia SBU Security Service of Ukraine Ukraine Ultra-Nationalism US President Barack Obama US State Department US-Russian Relations US-Ukrainian Relations

WORKING PAPER – Violence, Coercion and Escalation in the Ukrainian Crisis and Civil War, Escalation Point 8 – ATO: Civil War or Putin’s War?

photo ATO

by Gordon M. Hahn

The war in Ukraine is regarded by the Maidan regime and the West as ‘Putin’s war’ – a war provoked entirely by Russian incitement and invasion. In this view, the opposition to the Maidan’s seizure of power was minimal and largely artificial inspired by outside agitators, guerilla fighters, and Russian intelligence and military personnel intervention. In this view, neither does the Donbass population support the Donbass resistance fighters and their political project, nor are those resistance fighters largely from the Donbass. In this view, the noted Girkin-Strelkov and several other Russia-dispatched acting Russian intelligence and military operatives started the war and were only able to sustain it by virtue of Moscow’s direct intervention including the supply of regular Russian troops, weapons, and ammunition.

For its part Russia and the Donbass fighters have insisted the war was not their choice but rather Kiev’s. In their view, they are freedom fighters or at least fighters for regional autonomy and against the threat of neo-fascism emanating from the radicals within Maidan. In this view, Donbass’s Donetsk Peoples’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk (Lugansk) People’s Republic (LNR) are popularly rooted and legitimate, and any official and unofficial Russian assistance has not been crucial either for the start or continuation of the war. The evidence suggests that the Russian/Donbass view is closer to the truth, despite significant but restrained, targeted, and often belated support from both Moscow and ordinary Russians. However, Russian military intervention clearly occurred after the ATO had been decared and began by Kiev’s hand.

Kiev declared an ‘anti-terrorist’ operation (ATO) against the Donbass (DNR and LNR combined) resistance on 14 April 2014 and began operations the next day. Before that date there had been no organized armed resistance to the Maidan takeover of power in Kiev. Moreover, the Maidan authorities began to discuss the declaration of an ATO against Donbass in March days after Putin’s stealth occupation of Crimea, when acting president Turchynov convened the Ukrainian Defense and Security Council to discuss measures to address the threat of separatism in the country’s southeastern oblasts. On April 14-15, the Ukrainian military deployed troops, aircraft and armoured carriers in eastern Ukraine in a declared “anti-terrorist operation.”

The SBU itself observed, or within days subsequently received information to the effect, that the Russian monarchist Girkin-Strelkov had arrived in Donetsk on April 12th for the purpose of “realizing a coercive scenario of hidden aggression” by Russia after leaving Crimea for Russia on April 8th by the Kerch ferry and entering Ukraine through Russia’s Rostov-na-Donu. The pro-Russian monarchist Strelkov-Girkin himself claimed he had initiated the violence in Donbass, but this is clearly untrue and an attempt to bolster his supposed credentials as a national hero of the resistance to the Maidan revolt. Strelkov-Girkin was not a player at this point. He had played a minor role in the Crimea takeover, as I noted elsewhere, and the SBU reported his presence in Donbass two days after the April 14th declaration of the ATO against Donbass.[1] His arrival was hardly a legitimate casus belli for starting a civil war against a still non-violent, if increasingly assertive and potentially coercive opposition in Donbass.

The only events to which the ATO could have been a response also were not legitimate casus belli for massive military operations. the peaceful anti-Maidan demonstrations, the seizure of several arms depots, and threats of forceful seizures of power in the region made by local resistance leaders. In late January, as revolt spread across the country, including in Donbass’s Luhanks and Donetsk Oblasts, native anti-Maidan Luhansk “partisans”, responding to Right Sector assertiveness in the region emerged and subsequently captured Artemevsk and Slavyansk weapons depots. These installations warehoused enormous amounts of former Soviet weapons and ammunition.

In addition, local oligarchs such as Rinat Akhmedov and Sergei Levochkin initially and generously financed the Donbass opposition to Maidan, including anti-Maidan demonstrations and then the initial local resistance forces in order to protect their assets from raids by the western and local ultra-nationalists who were beginning to grab assets on behalf of western Ukrainian oligarchs such as Ihor Kolomiskii and Dmitry Firtash. Oddly, Levochkin was demoted from his post as head of Yanukovich’s presidential administration to the position of advisor of the president on January 17th. The same day the Chief of the General Staff of Ukraine’s Ground Forces was fired.[2] Could Yanukovich have been pursuing the possibility of declaring martial law with deployment of the army, prompting their resignations – or at least dissension – and consequently Yanukovich’s distrust? In conditions of crisis politics, coup politics follow close behind.

At any rate, Eastern Ukraine’s peaceful, political resistance to the Maidan revolt began long before Grikin-Strelkov’s arrival in Donetsk. Already on the day after Yanukovich’s removal – anti-Maidan forces in eastern and southern Ukraine began rejecting the Maidan’s overthrow of Yanukovich and threatening separatism. The February 21st Kharkiv congress of PR southeastern oblasts’ deputies declared that their regional governments would “take upon themselves responsibility for guaranteeing the constitutional legal order and citizens’ rights” until these were restored in Kiev. This meant that Crimea, Sevastopol and other regions in the south and east were refusing to recognize the Maidan regime in Kiev. Soon anti-Maidan demonstrations began on squares before the oblast administration buildings across much of Donbass and in other cities in southeastern Ukraine from Kherson to Dnepropetrovsk, sometimes met with pro-Maidan protests. The urgency of the Donbass and other regions’ resistance elements could only have been piqued when the pro-Maidan rump majority in the Supreme Rada – the pro-Yanukovich and pro-Russia deputies of which were under intimidation and threats from ultra-nationalist deputies and their allied armed revolutionaries – adopted well-known amendments to the law repealing the status of Russian as a state language in regions with large ethnic Russian and Russophone minorities or pluralities. Although the amendments were themselves repealed the next day under Western pressure, the Maidan revolution’s clearly ethno-nationalistic instincts reinforced fears in the east that the revolution was ultra-nationalist and even fascist rather than democratic and that their rights had only just begun to be eradicated.

Anti-Maidan rallies mounted in the east and in some southern and central Ukrainian provincial capitols through March. In the early morning hours of April 6th – a day before Right Sector activists in Kiev stormed the Supreme Court and ejected and humiliated its judges[3] – a group of anti-Maidan demonstrators, protesting “nationalism and other forms of Nazism,” seized the oblast administration in Donetsk and later the SBU’s headquarters, declaring a ‘Donetsk People’s Republic.” However, by nightfall Ukrainian Special Forces (Spetsnaz) had taken the SBU building back under control and soon took the OGA, and the local prosecutor’s office charged the detained anti-Maidan protesters with attempting to overthrow Ukraine’s constitutional order. These protesters were already being referred to as ‘separatists’ and within days would regard them as terrorists.[4] Initial takeovers by anti-Maidan elements that occurred on April 7th in several other oblasts were successfully overturned by special forces.[5] Lugansk government facilities and some in Donetsk also were lost to security forces and had to be re-taken.[6] Again, all this occurred before Girkin-Strelkov or any other possibly non-volunteer Russian forces had entered Donetsk and Lugansk.

The Donetsk and Lugansk OGAs were taken again by the anti-Maidan forces on April 14th assisted this time by Russian volunteers, not Russian forces, even recently released conscripts as would happen later.[7] On April 16th, a local activist, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, and his organization ‘Oplot’ seized Donetsk city hall. Zakharchenko would become a leading field commander in the civil war and leader of the DNR.[8] But these takeovers of power came when the ATO had already been under discussion for more than a week and on the same day that the ATO was declared and Kiev’s tanks and planes had already begun to move. So Maidan Kiev’s civil war or ‘ATO’ was not a reaction to a Russian invasion or intervention or even to Donbass rebel violence. Rather, it was a deliberate policy to refuse to negotiate with, and deny the anti-Maidan forces the very same tactics they, the Maidan forces, had used to seize power in Kiev and much of the rest of Ukraine. Kiev Maidan preferred to reject talks, much as its radicals did on February 21st. Instead, it sent regular forces and neofascist-led volunteer battalions to the southeastern Donetsk and Lugansk regions immediately after Donbass locals refused to submit to the country’s new, coup-imposed authorities in lieu of talks on autonomy for their region.

Moreover, even the Maidan regime’s strategic communications and propaganda efforts rarely claimed that there was a Russian presence in eastern Ukraine before Girkin-Strelkov, who was a retired, not active Russian intelligence officer, before 2014. When they did make that claim, they were immediately exposed as disinformation. Under the Maidan regime Ukraine’s SBU and its director Valentin Nalyvaichenko issued all sorts of false propaganda reports in 2014-15. Early Maidan SBU disinformation usually included photographs captured from social networking sites taken who knows when and who knows where; audio tapes made who knows where and who knows when; incorrect claims that the uniforms and equipment used by the pro-Russian groups in Donetsk and Lugansk were Russian army-issue when in fact they could be purchased in army surplus, hunting, even souvenir stores or on the black market; and claims that those forces must be Russian soldiers and/or special forces because of their professional demeanor. They ignored the fact that interviews with them and journalist who have spoken with them indicated that they are former Afghan war veterans, former Ukrainian, Russian and Soviet servicemen, local police and private security guards.

Numerous such SBU reports and statements were not only not credible; they were actually discredited rather quickly and easily by anyone willing to examine them with an objective eye. The first piece of disinformation attempted to show a significant Russian presence in Donbass already in April 2014. On 20 April 2014, a set of photos of an alleged GRU agent were provided by the SBU to NATO, Western governments, and the New York Times were ostensibly taken in Georgia, Russia, and eastern Ukraine and purported to unmask a bearded GRU special forces operative who has been allegedly dispatched by Moscow to Georgia and now six years later to eastern Ukraine. Three photographs allegedly showed one and the same Russian GRU agent in Russia, 2008 Georgia, and April 2014 Ukraine. NATO’s Atlantic Council and the New York Times publicized the photographs, touting them as evidence of Russia’s inclursion into Donbass.[9] The SBU’s ‘evidence’ of this alleged GRU agent’s presence in Ukraine was exposed immediately as fake.[10] The New York Times and NATO’s Atlantic Council backed off their claims.[11] Simon Saradzhyan of Harvard’s Belfer Center noted that the photo labeled to have been taken in Georgia shows Khamzat Gairbekov, commander of the Chechen Vostok (East) Battalion controlled by Russia’s GRU and Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, sent to fight in Georgia in 2008, and since disbanded.[12] Moreover, the photographer of the photo taken supposedly in Russia said that the picture was actually taken in Ukraine and was used without his permission and that the person in the photograph taken in Ukraine was not the GRU agent Gairbekov but a private Russian citizen named Alexander Mozhaev, who had served in the Russian army in the 1990s.[13]

At the same time, Ukraine’s SBU claimed to have captured 20 GRU agents but never presented them to television cameras and never provided audio, pictures of them or any identity papers. Weeks later the SBU reduced the number of its ‘captured’ GRU agents to 10 and days after that to 3 in its falsified report to NATO’s Atlantic Council. It seemed such incontrovertible proof of a significant GRU presence beyond the routine should have been paraded before television cameras. This would have been a real propaganda coup against the Kremlin, but a ‘perp walk’ never came. If it had, then it would have been incumbent upon those seeing clear evidence to acknowledge that Putin had sent forces into Ukraine to orchestrate the east Ukrainian uprisings. Presenting conclusive evidence of a clandestine Russian incursion into eastern Ukraine therefore would have helped to mobilize support for a tougher military response than did the falsified photographs did. It is perhaps for this reason that the Obama White House, U.S. State Department, NATO, its Atlantic Council, US European Command chief General Phillip Breedlove, and the New York Times touted this as ‘evidence’ of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine. Only the last retracted the ‘evidence’ after it was exposed as false. From the Kremlin’s point of view, false reports of a Russian presence in Ukraine and Western connivance in their proselytization were added to the Western-backed Maidan revolt and the beginning of ground and air operations against Donbass without a word of criticism or even caution rgarding Kiev’s ATO from either Washington or Brussels.

False SBU reports continued through the ATO even after there was reliable evidence that some officially-sponsored Russian incursions had begun in June-July 2014. In February 2015, as the Donbass rebels, with significant Russian military support, were encircling and about to rout Ukrainian forces near Debaltsevo, Ukraine’s SBU passed photographs of Russian tanks allegedly in Ukraine to a US Senator who showed them in a presentation on the floor of the Senate only to have them exposed as fakes. Burned already by the SBU’s sloppy stratcomm, the New York Times exposed the deception by showing that the photographs were from the 2008 South Ossetiya war.[14] In February 2015 SBU chief Nalyvaichenko claimed the SBU had evidence that Putin aide Vladislav Surkov had organized and commanded from an SBU base the alleged police sniper attacks that killed tens of civilians on 20 February 2014. Nalyvaichenko presented none of the evidence allegedly possessed by the SBU; he simply said it had such evidence.[15] As documented elsewhere, the preponderance of proof ever since the first days after those events shows that in fact neo-fascist elements within the Maidan protest movement initiated and were behind many if not most of the sniper shootings, which targeted both police and demonstrators.

By April, a Rada deputy from President Petro Poroshenko’s party (the Petro Poroshenko Bloc or PPB) revealed that Surkov arrived in Kiev on the evening of the 20th, five hours after the shooting was over.[16] Nalyvaichenko suddenly toned down his story. Testifying at a hearing of the Anti-Corruption Committee in mid-April, he was much more circumscribed in his claims about Surkov. He stated that Surkov was reportedly seen in the company of then SBU chief Oleksandr Yakimenko and visited the presidential administration. Nalyvaichenko made no mention of Surkov coordinating the sniper attacks at the hearings.[17] When the neo-fascist Right Sector group killed several police in Mukachevo in July 2015, the already former SBU chief supported Right Sector’s position, suggesting that he might have had a role along with the group in organizing the sniper attacks and was seeking to cover this up by pinning the crime on Surkov and the Kremlin. In June 2015, Nalyvaichenko was fired from his position as SBU chief allegedly for failing to fight corruption agressively. This would not stop Nalyvaichenko from speaking out, including about alleged Russian incursions into Donbass. In July, the earliest official Russian military or intelligence presence in Ukraine he could point to was in May 2014. This was based on information gathered from two GRU agents that Kiev’s forces actually did capture in April 2015 and did parade before television cameras unlike a year earlier.[18]

In addition to the false claims, Kiev’s more credible disclosures regarding an official Russian military or intelligence presence Ukraine (outside Crimea) never claimed to show, no less did they demonstrate such a presence existed before the 14 April 2014 start of the ATO. Thus, when the opposition Russian newspaper Novaya gazeta consulted the Ukrainian military on Kiev’s and NATO’s claims that there are 13,000 Russian troops fighting in Ukraine and that, according to Kiev, at least 4,500 have been killed as of February 2014, the earliest time for which evidence of a Russian intervention, according to Ukraine’s military, was August 2014, not June or July, no less April. Yet Kiev and NATO were claiming in June that Russia had ‘invaded’ Ukraine. Novaya gazeta concluded that the numerical data for the number of Russian troops and Russian military casualties in Donbass trumpeted by Kiev were not realistic.[19] To this date no evidence of a Russian military intervention or even a significant GRU intelligence-gathering infiltration before late April 2014 has been presented. This means that Kiev started the war and that the war is fundamentally a civil war. It is as much and, very arguably more Turchynov’s war, Nalyvaichenko’s war, Avakov’s war, and Maidan Kiev’s war than it is ‘Putin’s war’ or ‘Russia’s war.’

Without an exhaustive attempt to avoid war through negotiations, Kiev was initiating a civil war against a portion of its population. Facing a very similar, indeed far more threatening situation in 1991 in Chechnya, Moscow negotiated for three years before starting its anti-terrorist operation in December 1994. By contrast, Kiev started its ATO almost immediately and with full Western backing. This means that along with Moscow – whose Crimea intervention surely had sown panic and potential for overreaction in Kiev, Washington and Brussels – the West, in particular the Barack Obama administration, and Kiev also bear responsibility for the war as the do for the original crisis that brought us the the Ukrainian civil war and the threat of larger conflagration in Europe for the first time in 75 years.



[1] “SBU: Yanukovicha kontroliruet rossiiskaya voennaya razvedka,” Ukrainskaya pravda, 16 April 2014, http://www.pravda.com.ua/rus/news/2014/04/16/7022681/.

[2] “Yanukovich uvolil konaduyshchego Sukhoputnymi voiskami,” Ukrainskaya pravda, 17 January 2014, http://www.pravda.com.ua/rus/news/2014/01/17/7009861/.

[3] “Pravyi Sektor vzyal shturmom Verkhovnyi Sud Ukrainy – Chrezvychainyie novosti – 07.04,” YouTube, 7 April 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jitMYO-xCc8.

[4] “Kak v Donetske, zakhvatyvali OGA – Chrezvychainyie novosti, 07.04,” YouTube, 7 April 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=C12ewZOQxAM; “Kak prorossiiskie separatisty segodnya zakhvatyvali zdanie Donetskoi OGA (VIDEO),” Munitsipal’naya gazeta, 6 April 2014, http://mungaz.net/main/11622-kak-prorossiyskie-separatisty-segodnya-zahvatyvali-zdanie-doneckoy-oga-video.html; “Spetsnaz osvobodil zakhvachennoe separatistami zdanie SBU v Donetske,” Ukrainskaya pravda, 16 April 2014, www.pravda.com.ua/rus/news/2014/04/7/7021678/; and “Ukraine crisis: Protesters declare Donetsk ‘republic’,” BBC World Service, 7 April 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26919928.

[5] For Kharkiv (Kharkov), see “V Khar’kove osvobodili OGA, no popytalis’ zakhvatit televyshku,” Ukrainskaya pravda, 7 April 2014, www.pravda.com.ua/rus/news/2014/04/7/7021681/. For Nikolaev, see “V Nikolaev stolknulis’ storonniki Maidana i separtisty. Lyubitelei Putina zastavili uiti,” Ukrainskaya pravda, 7 April 2014, http://www.pravda.com.ua/rus/news/2014/04/7/7021682/.

[6] “Lugansk vo vlasti separatistov: kak zakhvatyvaly OGA, militsiyu, prokuraturu i sud,” BigMir.net, 29 April 2014, http://news.bigmir.net/ukraine/812829-Lugansk-vo-vlasti-separatistov–kak-zahvatyvali-OGA–miliciju–prokuraturu-i-sud.

[7] “Kak zakhvatyvali OGA i prokuraturu v Luganske,” BBC Russian Service, 14 April 2014, http://www.bbc.com/ukrainian/multimedia_russian/2014/04/140430_ru_gallery_lugansk.

[8] The Guardian, 15 April 2014.

[9] Andrew Higgins, Michael R. Gordon, and Andrew E. Kramer, “Photos Link Masked Men in East Ukraine to Russia,” New York Times, 20 April 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/21/world/europe/photos-link-masked-men-in-east-ukraine-to-russia.html?_r=1.

[10] From the photos it was immediately clear that they were anything but; they were hazy and could very well be showing two different men. Moreover, it seemed strange that a special forces agent would consistently wear a tell-tale beard in a clandestine operation rather than shave it off or shorten it so as to avoid detection, given the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras and CCTV nowadays? See my post and another by Harvard University Kennedy School of Government scholar Sergei Saradzhyan in Johnson’s Russia List, No. 94, 24 April 2014, http://russialist.org/russia-ukraine-jrl-2014-94-contents-with-links-thursday-24-april-2014/.

[11] Michael R. Gordon and Andrew E. Kramer, “Scrutiny of Photos Said to Tie Russian Units to Ukraine,” New York Times, 22 April 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/23/world/europe/scrutiny-over-photos-said-to-tie-russia-units-to-ukraine.html?action=click&contentCollection=Europe&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article.

[12] Sergei Saradzhyan, “No Smoking Spetsnaz Gun in E. Ukraine or Why Khamzat of GRU’s Vostok Wouldn’t Pose As Donetsk Native,” Saradzhyan: From From the Global TankLive Journal, 22 April 2014, http://saradzhyan.livejournal.com/34407.html.

[13] Simon Shuster, “Exclusive: Meet the Pro-Russian Separatists of Eastern Ukraine,” Time, 23 April 2014, http://time.com/74405/exclusive-pro-russian-separatists-eastern-ukraine/.

[14] Robert Mackey, “Shifting Ukrainian Fact from Ukrainian Fiction,” New York Times, 13 February 2015, http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/02/14/world/europe/sifting-ukrainian-fact-from-ukrainian-fiction.html?referrer&_r=1.

[15] “Nalyvaichenko obvinil sovetnika Putina v organizatsii rasstrelov na Maidane,” Vesti Ukraina, 20 February 2015, http://vesti-ukr.com/kiev/89706-nalivajchenko-obvinil-sovetnika-putina-v-organizacii-rasstrelov-na-majdane and “Nalyvaichenko: Surkov keruvav snaiperami – inozemtsyami na Maidani,” Ukrainskaya pravda, 19 February 2015, http://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2015/02/19/7059184/.

[16] “Pochemu possorilis’ Porosheno i Nalyvaichenko,” Vesti Ukraina, 15 June 2015, http://vesti-ukr.com/strana/103514-pochemu-possorilis-poroshenko-i-nalivajchenko.

[17] Serhiy Leschenko, “Nalyvaichenko protiv Surkova – stsenariy dlya Medvedchuka,”Ukrainskaya pravda, 16 April 2015, http://blogs.pravda.com.ua/authors/leschenko/552ee534b5a10/.

[18] Mark Snowiss, “Ex-Ukrainian Spy Chief: Russian Camps Spreading Chaos,” Voice of America, 24 July 2015, http://www.voanews.com/content/ex-ukrainian-spy-chief-russian-camps-spreading-chaos/2877981.html.

[19] The article “War. Feedback” consists of a response from the Ukrainian Defense Ministry to Novaya gazeta queries on this and other issues the paper sent to the ministry. The paper then subjected the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s claims to analysis by a Russian General Staff expert and one of its own military experts. Ivan Zhilin, “Voina. Obratnaya svyaz’,” Novaya gazeta, No. 21, 2 March 2015, http://www.novayagazeta.ru/politics/67467.html.


Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation. He is also Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View and Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and publishes the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report (IIPER) at CSIS at http://csis.org/program/russia-and-eurasia-program. Dr. Hahn has been a visiting scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. (2011-2013), the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. (1995 and 2005), and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, San Francisco State, and St. Petersburg State (Russia) Universities.


  1. Girkin is not on Russia side. he entered Slavyansk, proclaimed himself a leader to already large group of resistance and got rid of all concurrents. he got rid of many people who supported the resistance. many were killed by his single handed orders without any court. he befriended pro ukrainians, was in talk with them and he gave up 1/3 of initial Novorussian territory. he gave an order to give up Donetsk but his order was dismissed by already angered rebels and he leaved alone. there is a lot of info on him and his real dealing while he was in DNR. he is a traitor not a hero. now he is s*hitting on people who unlike him fought real battles and still fight. moving around Russia proclaiming himself true Russian leader. funny how his paths are barely different from american “Russian opposition” curators. he is ”patriotic” navalny nothing more. USA hope for maidan in Russia and they don’t care under what losungs it will be pseudo liberal or pseudo patriotic.

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