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North Korea’s Nuclear Shadow: A Worrisome Expansion

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Abstract: The nuclear news from North Korea remains clear and threatening.  Ignoring both political warnings and legal prohibitions, Kim Jong Un has continued testing shorter range weapons that could imperil U.S. allies South Korea and Japan. In September, the North tested a new cruise missile it intends to arm with nuclear warheads and demonstrated a new system for firing ballistic missiles from trains. Kim’s escalatory launch from rail cars came just hours before the South reported its first test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile. Tackling such complexities, the following article by Professor Louis René Beres recommends issue-specific forms of dialectical thinking to US planners and policy-makers. His focused recommendations include a US policy shift in strategic objective from enemy “denuclearization” to mutual nuclear deterrence.

“The worst does sometimes happen.”-Friedrich Durrenmatt, Swiss Playwright

 Pyongyang’s recent missile tests reveal more than narrowly technical information about advanced military hardware. These tests reveal that Kim Jong Un has no intention to “denuclearize.” A reciprocal question now arises for the United States: What should Washington do in response?

To begin, there should be no resumption of incoherent and needlessly belligerent escalatory threats by an American president. There should be, instead, a conscious refinement of conceptual understandings. Before the United States can limit Pyongyang’s determined capacity to expand ever-more aggressively with its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, Washington will need to embrace much more deeply thoughtful ideas about military power and national security.[1]

What should this required “embrace” actually look like? First, President Joseph Biden will need to understand that even a tangible US superiority in delivery vehicles and nuclear firepower need not signify American safety or potential “victory.” Though not readily apparent, this presumed US advantage could encourage a false sense of national influence and a visceral pattern of strategic risk-taking.

Overall, there could be no “minor” nuclear crises. In essence, a nuclear confrontation with North Korea – any nuclear confrontation – could quickly spin out of control, leaving even the militarily “superior” nation with grievous losses or impairments.[2]  What then?

The Intellectual Imperative

For the United States, the core policy obligations are plain. Going forward, proper reactions to North Korean nuclear expansion must be based exclusively upon Science and Reason. Rejecting the previous American president’s announced preference for “attitude” over “preparation,” Mr. Biden should restore this country to intellectually defensible foreign policies.

During the rancorous Trump Era, all proposed presidential solutions to North Korean nuclearization became crudely ad hominem (“We fell in love,” said Donald Trump about Kim Jong Un). At this point, to restore basic coherence to US-North Korean diplomacy, pertinent strategic policies will need to be based upon a more significant American appreciation of decision -making complexities. Inter alia, this appreciation should include an awareness of various multiple “synergies.” 

What intersections should be included? In all synergistic intersections, the “whole” of any particular outcome must be greater than the sum of its “parts.” Additionally, among military planners, the term “force multiplier” is often used to communicate the same or similar principles.

                There is more. For American planners, specificity and generality[3] will both be required. Comprehensive theories are necessary.[4] Always, the prevailing world order,[5] like the myriad individual human bodies who comprise it, will need to be recognized as a system. No discernible effects could be entirely isolated or singular.

Among the clarifying implications of this central metaphor, any more-or-less major conventional conflict in northeast Asia could heighten prospects of international conflicts elsewhere. This is the case whether such prospects would be immediate or incremental.  These prospects could include a regional nuclear war. Significant risks of such a worst case scenario would be enlarged by American searches for no-longer plausible outcomes. An important example of such a mistaken search would be one that is directed toward “victory.”

Perils of Seeking “Victory”

               There is good reason for identifying this example. Here, a cautionary observation about “victory” is persuasive, at least in part, because all core meanings of victory and defeat have changed dramatically.[6] Inter alia, these are no longer the meanings offered by Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz’ classic On War (1832). At a little-examined metaphysical level, the ultimate victory for any human being or institutionalized collection of human beings must be victory over death.[7]

               In most prospectively identifiable wars between nation-states, there are no longer any confirmable criteria of demarcation between victory and defeat. Even a “victory” on some actual field of battle might not in any calculable way reduce serious security threats to the American homeland or US allies. Such grave threats, whether foreseen or unforeseen, could include various sub-state aggressions (terrorism) and/or widening attacks upon regional or non-regional US allies.

               Once it was acknowledged as a distinct foreign-policy objective, any declared US search for “victory” over North Korea could create a corrosively lethal escalatory dynamic with Pyongyang, one from which Washington could no longer expect any derivative military advantages. Such predictably injurious creations could take place in variously unanticipated increments or as an unexpected (“bolt-from-the-blue”) enemy aggression.[8] In the foreseeable worst case, an unwitting US forfeiture of “escalation dominance” would signify starkly irreversible American losses. These losses could include chaotic conditions that create tens or hundreds of thousands of prompt fatalities and much larger numbers of latent cancer deaths.

               For US policy planners, a great deal of subject-matter specificity must soon be taken into close account. In a promisingly coherent post-Trump policy world where history and science regain proper pride of place,[9] a capable American president can finally acknowledge something too long disregarded. It is that because nation-states no longer declare wars or enter into binding war-termination agreements, the application of traditional criteria of “war winning” to interstate conflicts no longer make any legal sense.[10]

Even more important, the empty political rhetoric of “victory” carries no correspondingly objective assessment or evaluation. No one can ever really “know” whether a particular war has been won or lost. And if this ambiguity were not the case, the “winning” side might still remain substantially vulnerable to assorted enemy aggressions, whether state, sub-state or “hybrid” inflicted.

The Limits of Military Acumen, Rationality and Prediction

 There is more. In the very complicated matters at hand, ascertainable benefits might not lie in any traditional forms of military expertise. A core question arises: Exactly how much applicable experience could American generals have garnered in starting, managing or ending a nuclear war? To what extent might the president and his senior commanders see only what they would want to see, including perhaps a seemingly gainful prospect of US military preemption?[11]

               In these opaque nuclear times, selective perceptions could sometimes prove to be mistaken. In principle, even after sober consideration of retaliatory consequences, an American president might still discover tangible benefit in launching specific preemptive strikes against an already nuclear North Korea. This prospect arises at least in exceptionally residual circumstances.[12] Accordingly, there could exist certain definable crises where refraining from striking first would appear more costly than gainful (irrational). These would be crises that allow North Korea to implement certain severely-complicating protective measures.[13]

               What’s the “bottom line” on US defensive first strikes against an already nuclear North Korea? It is that even such an American preemption could sometimes be rational, but only in utterly last resort strategic calculations.

               How can America tap pertinent military expertise on such critical existential judgments? All things considered, it is reasonable to expect that the generals could have no adequate expectation of pertinent “dialectics;”[14] that is, about Pyongyang’s selected response. Still, by no means does this candid expectation represent any ad hominem or gratuitous criticism of professional military planners. It is merely a dispassionate analytic reflection on the historical uniqueness of nuclear conflict.

There have been no nuclear wars; hence, there can be no experts on nuclear warfare.

               This incontestable conclusion is most urgently compelling in regard to the myriad complexities of any two-power nuclear competition: (1) one where there would exist substantial asymmetries in relative military power position; and (2) one where the “weaker” (North Korean) side could maintain a verifiable potential to inflict unacceptably damaging first-strikes or reprisals upon the “stronger” American side.

               Again, no truly reliable probability estimations can ever be undertaken in reference to unprecedented or sui generis situations. In science, authentic probability judgments must always be based upon a carefully calculated frequency of relevant past events.

               There are other problems in seeking an ultimate “victory” over North Korea. Recalling the “good old days,” which extend into the twentieth-century, nation-states have generally had to defeat enemy armies before being able to wreak any wished-for destruction upon the adversary’s cities and infrastructures. In those earlier times of more traditional doctrinal arrangements concerning war and peace, an individual country’s demonstrated capacity to “win” was necessarily prior to a sought-after capacity to destroy. An appropriate and well-known example to US military thinkers would be the case of Persia and Greece at the 480 BCE Battle of Thermopylae. Today, unlike what was purportedly the case at Thermopylae, a state needn’t be able to defeat enemy armies in order to inflict calculably gainful harms. Even if the US were to “win” against North Korea in a war, that “defeated” adversary could still inflict vast harms upon American citizens, institutions and infrastructures.

At a minimum, such an enemy could enlist destructive proxy forces, such as bio-terrorist surrogates.

The Capacity to Deter is Distinct from the Capacity to Win

               For President Biden and his counselors, there does remain some “good news.” The United States needn’t be able to win a particular conflict in order to credibly threaten a significant foe like North Korea (deterrence) or to inflict retaliatory harms upon this enemy. What this “good news” means today is that the capacity to deter is no longer necessarily identical to the capacity to win. For the United States, the principal war-planning or war-deterring lesson of any such ongoing transformations now warrants serious study.

               For the United States, the only prospective “victory” of immediate consequence is an intellectual victory. Conceptually, what matters most will be an American capacity to win bewilderingly complex struggles of “mind over mind.” Going forward, American planner must diligently work through variously dialectic forms of struggle with Pyongyang, not just enter into ad hoc or visceral contests of “mind over matter.”

               There are also various relevant points of law to be considered.[15] This is because jurisprudencehas its own proper place in such bewildering strategic calculations. More specifically, in terms of applicable law, winning and losing may no longer mean much for successful strategic planning. This tangible devaluation of victory and defeat should also become more obvious with regard to America’s wars on terror. Now, after Afghanistan, pressing conflict issues will need to be examined within continuously transforming US military plans and objectives regarding not just North Korea but also Syria, Iraq, Yemen and assorted other places.

               Regarding “victory,” he U.S. can never meaningfully “win” any upcoming wars with Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS-K, Taliban, etc. In part, this is the case because national leaders could never know for certain whether a presumptively zero-sum conflict with virulent sub-state or “hybrid” adversaries was actually “over.” On pertinent definitional matters, a “hybrid” enemy would refer to any adversary that combined state and sub-state elements in changing ratios of composition.

  Operationally, winning and losing are now fully extraneous to America’s collective interests, or, in those foreseeable cases where “victory” might still be expressed as a high-priority national objective, fully harmful. Ironically, a narrowly static American orientation to “winning” against North Korea could sometime lead the United States toward huge and irreversible losses. Such loses would likely ensue from various critical American misjudgments on “escalation dominance.”

               There is more. United States military planners could look usefully to “The East.” Long ago, famed Chinese strategist Sun-Tzu had reasoned simply: “Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” To meet current US national security objectives vis-à-vis North Korea and other potential nuclear adversaries, this ancient Chinese military wisdom suggests that Washington now openly seek deterrence rather than victory. Any such necessary discontinuance should remain connected to the stringent requirements of maintaining optimal control over all necessary military escalations.

               If, in the future, these requirements were somehow minimized or disregarded, a resultant regional conflict could have “spillover” implications for other nation-states and for other parts of the world. Different elements of chaos notwithstanding, world politics and world military processes are always expressive of an underlying system. This elucidating characterization must lie continuously at the core of any coherent US strategic doctrine. 

Final Strategic Calculations

               Before these systemic connections can be understood and assessed, however, US planners must realize that the complicated logic of strategic nuclear calculations demands a discrete and capably nuanced genre of decision-making. This would be a genre that calls for considerable intellectual refinement in extremis atomicum. As an example, casually expecting an American president to convincingly leverage Chinese and Russian sanctions on behalf of the United States would miss at least two vital and intersecting points: (1) the regime in Pyongyang will likely never back down on its overall plan for nuclearization, however severe sanctions might seemingly become; and (2) counting upon meaningful sanctions from Beijing or Moscow would become inherently problematic for the United States.

 Both China and Russia remain substantially more worried about their traditional national enemy in Washington than about future dangers arising from Pyongyang.

               Truth will out. In world politics, as in law,[16] truth is exculpatory.  Like it or not, a nuclear North Korea is a fait accompli. Soon, President Biden will have to focus upon creating stable nuclear deterrence with North Korea (a) for the benefit of the United States; (b) for the benefit of America’s directly vulnerable allies in South Korea and Japan; and (c) for the benefit of its indirectly vulnerable allies elsewhere, including Israel in the still-dissembling Middle East.

               However inconspicuous, these important allies remain integral components of the same organic world system; they can never be helpfully separated from the palpable consequences of American geopolitical posture.

               “The existence of `system’ in the world is at once obvious to every observer of nature,” observed 20th century French Jesuit scholar, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “no matter whom….” Nowhere is this interrelatedness more obvious or more potentially consequential than in the continuing matter of a nuclear North Korea and US foreign policy decision-making. This urgent threat from Pyongyang will not subside or disappear on its own. Immediately, it must be America’s sober responsibility to better understand all relevant American security obligations as well as their derivative complications.

Nuclear Warfighting Scenarios

 Should nuclear weapons ever be introduced into any future conflict between the United States and North Korea, actual instances of nuclear war-fighting could occur. This would be the case as long as: (a) US conventional first-strikes against North Korea would not destroy Pyongyang’s second-strike nuclear capability; (b) US conventional retaliations for a North Korean conventional first-strike would not destroy Pyongyang’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capability; (c) US preemptive nuclear strikes would  not destroy Pyongyang’s second-strike nuclear capability; and (d) US conventional retaliations for North Korean conventional first strikes would not destroy Pyongyang’s nuclear counter-retaliatory capability.

Any US nuclear preemption would be potentially catastrophic and hence implausible. Reciprocally, assuming rationality, any North Korean nuclear preemption against the United States or its allies would be unlikely or altogether inconceivable. Can we reasonably and continuously assume North Korean rationality? Kim Jong Un has been steadily accelerating his testing of advanced nuclear missiles and supporting infrastructures. There is no persuasive basis to doubt that his vast commitment to nuclear weapons is in any manner reversible.

In January 2021, after describing the United States as “our biggest enemy,” Kim Jong Un called openly for more advanced nuclear weapons and infrastructures. At that time, during fully nine hours of blistering remarks at a party conference in Pyongyang, Kim summarized his country’s basic strategic posture: “Our foreign political activities should be focused and redirected on subduing the United States, our biggest enemy…No matter who is in power in the US, the true nature of the US and its fundamental policies towards North Korea never change.”

               Now, capable strategic analysts guiding American president Joseph Bien should enhance their nuclear investigations by carefully identifying basic distinctions between intentional or deliberate nuclear war and unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war. The risks are apt to vary considerably, especially if rationality is also factored into the manty-sided calculation. Those American analysts who would remain too singularly focused upon a deliberate nuclear war scenario could all-too-casually underestimate a far more serious nuclear threat to the United States.

               This means the increasingly credible threat of an unintentional or inadvertent nuclear war.

                An additional conceptual distinction must be inserted into any US analytic scenario “mix.” This is the subtle but still important difference between an inadvertent nuclear war and an accidental nuclear war. Any accidental nuclear war would have to be inadvertent; conversely, however, there could be forms of inadvertent nuclear war that would not be accidental. Most critical, in this connection, would be significant errors in calculation committed by one or both sides – that is, more-or-less reciprocal mistakes that lead directly and/or inexorably to nuclear conflict.

The most blatant example of such a mistake would concern assorted misjudgments of enemy intent or capacity that emerge during the course of any ongoing crisis escalation.

Wider Implications of Chaos

               What about “chaos?” How would this indecipherable condition impact pertinent models of rational decision-making? Whether described in the Old Testament or in other evident sources of Western philosophy, chaos could become as much a source of human improvement as decline.[17] It is this prospectively positive side of chaos that is intended by Friedrich Nietzsche’s dense remark  in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883): “I tell you, ye have still chaos in you.”

               When expressed in aptly neutral tones, chaos represents that condition which prepares the world for all things, whether sacred or profane. It reveals that yawning gulf of “emptiness” where nothing is as yet, but where variously remaining civilizational opportunity can still originate. The 18th century German poet Friedrich Hölderlin observed: “There is a desert sacred and chaotic, which stands at the roots of the things, and which prepares all things.”

               Insightfully, in the ancient pagan world, Greek philosophers thought of this “desert” as logos, a primal designation which indicates that chaos is anything but starkly random or without merit.

One core conclusion is beyond reasonable question. It is that the only rational use for American nuclear weapons in any forthcoming US-North Korea negotiation must be as diplomatic bargaining elements of interstate dissuasion/persuasion. Barring any sudden crisis initiated by North Korean nuclear strike – a crisis that would immediately place the American president in extremis atomicum –  there could be absolutely no gainful use for such weapons as actual implements of war. If there could sometime arise a strategically rational justification for nuclear war-waging, one in which the expected benefits of nuclear weapons use would seemingly exceed expected costs, the planet as a whole could be imperiled, perhaps even irremediably.

Prima facie, there can be no credible guarantees that US-North Korean relations will not sometime descend into tangible nuclear conflict. “The worst,” warns Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, “does sometimes happen.” For the United States, the best way to avoid any such irreversible folly with North Korea would be to reluctantly accept that belligerent country into the “nuclear club,” but still take intellect-based steps to ensure that it remains subject to American nuclear deterrence.


[1] “What is the good of passing from one untenable position to another,” asks Samuel Beckett philosophically in Endgame, “of seeking justification always on the same plane?” Thought the celebrated Irish playwright was certainly not thinking specifically about world politics or national security, his generalized query remains well-suited to this strategic inquiry. As competitive power-politics has never worked, why keep insisting upon it as a presumptively viable doctrine?

[2] For informed assessments of plausible consequences of nuclear war fighting, see, by this author: Louis René Beres, SURVIVING AMID CHAOS: ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016/2018); Louis René Beres,  APOCALYPSE: NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE IN WORLD POLITICS (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres,  MIMICKING SISYPHUS: AMERICA’S COUNTERVAILING NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1983);  Louis René Beres, REASON AND REALPOLITIK: U S FOREIGN POLICY AND WORLD ORDER (Lexington MA;  Lexington Books, 1984);  and Louis René Beres, ed.,  SECURITY OR ARMAGEDDON: ISRAEL’S NUCLEAR STRATEGY (Lexington MA:  Lexington Books, 1986).

[3] The need for generality notwithstanding, strategic thinkers should never lose sight of the human consequences of their abstractions. By definition, theory is a simplification, one purposely excluding from consideration those factors deemed unessential to analytic explanation. This indispensable exclusion comes at a cost, however, because it involves the palpable sacrifice of espirit de finesse or the individual human element of any catastrophe. Recalling the poet Goethe’s observation in Urfaust, the original Faust fragment: “All theory, dear friend, is gray, and the golden tree of life is green.” (Grau, theurer Freund, ist alle Theorie, Und grűn des Lebens goldner Baum.”)

[4] “Theory is a net,” observes German poet Novalis,” and “only those who cast, can catch.” This apt metaphor was embraced by philosopher of science Karl Popper as the epigraph to his classic work on philosophy of science:  The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934).

[5] The term “world order” has its contemporary origins in a scholarly movement begun at the Yale Law School in the mid- and late 1960s and later “adopted” by the Politics Department at Princeton University in 1967-68. The present author was an early member of the Princeton-based World Order Models Project, and wrote several of the early books and articles in this once still-emergent academic genre.

[6]See by this writer, at The Hill: Louis René Beres: https://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/the-military/347395-opinion-victory-in-afghanistan-has-no-serious-meaning

[7]Throughout history, notions of ultimate “victory” have been associated with personal immortality. To wit, in his posthumously published Lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel opined, in his Philosophy of Right (1820), that the state represents “the march of God in the world.” The “deification” of Realpolitik, a transformation from mere principle of action to a sacred end in itself, drew its originating strength from the doctrine of sovereignty advanced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Initially conceived as a principle of internal order, this doctrine underwent a specific metamorphosis, whence it became the formal or justifying rationale for international anarchy –  that is, for the global “state of nature.” First established by Jean Bodin as a juristic concept in De Republica (1576), sovereignty came to be regarded as a power absolute and above the law. Understood in terms of modern international relations, this doctrine encouraged the notion that states lie above and beyond any form of legal regulation in their interactions with each other.

[8] See especially: RESOLUTION ON THE DEFINITION OF AGGRESSION, Dec. 14, 1974, U.N.G.A. Res. 3314 (XXIX), 29 U.N. GAOR, Supp. (No. 31) 142, U.N. Doc. A/9631, 1975, reprinted in 13 I.L.M. 710, 1974; and CHARTER OF THE UNITED NATIONS, Art. 51… Done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945, 59 Stat. 1031, T.S. No. 993, Bevans 1153, 1976, Y.B.U.N. 1043.

[9] “Intellect rots the brain” shrieked Joseph Goebbels at a Nuremberg Germany rally in 1935. “I love the poorly educated” echoed American presidential candidate Donald Trump at a 2016 rally in the United States. Perhaps to authenticate his anti-intellectualism, Trump went on to propose household bleach as a Covid19 treatment, urge the use of nuclear weapons against hurricanes and praise American revolutionary armies in the 18th century for “gaining control of all national airports.”

[10] Under authoritative international law, which is generally a part of US law, the question of whether or not a “state of war” exists between states is ordinarily ambiguous. Traditionally, it was held that a formal declaration of war was necessary before any true state of war could be said to exist. Hugo Grotius divided wars into declared wars, which were legal, and undeclared wars, which were not. (See Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace, Bk. III, Chas. III, IV, and XI.) By the start of the twentieth century, the position that war can obtain only after a conclusive declaration of war by one of the parties was codified by Hague Convention III. This treaty stipulated, inter alia, that hostilities must never commence without a “previous and explicit warning” in the form of a declaration of war or an ultimatum. (See Hague Convention III Relative to the Opening of Hostilities, 1907, 3 NRGT, 3 series, 437, article 1.) Currently, formal declarations of war could be tantamount to admissions of international criminality because of the express criminalization of aggression by authoritative international law. It could, therefore, represent a clear jurisprudential absurdity to tie any true state of war to prior declarations of belligerency. It follows, further, that a state of war may exist without any formal declarations, but only if there should exist an actual armed conflict between two or more states, and/or at least one of these affected states considers itself “at war.”

[11] As a legally permissible form of such a preemption, “anticipatory self-defense” is rooted in customary international law (see note immediately below), Customary international law is identified as an authoritative source of world legal norms at Art. 38 of the UN’s Statute of the International Court of Justice. International law, an integral part of the legal system of all states in world politics, assumes a general obligation of states to supply benefits to one another and to avoid war wherever possible. This core assumption of jurisprudential solidarity is known formally as a “peremptory” or jus cogens expectation, that is, one that is not subject to any reasonable question. It can be found, inter alia, in Justinian, Corpus Juris Civilis, Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace (1625) and Emmerich de Vattel, The Law of Nations or Principles of Natural Law (1758).

[12] In law, any such defensive first-strikes, if permissible, could be considered “anticipatory self-defense.” The normative origins of such defense liein customary international law, more precisely, in The Caroline, a case that concerned the unsuccessful rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada against British rule. Following this case, the serious threat of armed attack has generally justified certain militarily defensive actions. In an exchange of diplomatic notes between the governments of the United States and Great Britain, then U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster outlined a framework for self-defense that did not require an antecedent attack. Here, the jurisprudential framework permitted a military response to a threat so long as the danger posed was “instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” See: Beth M. Polebaum, “National Self-defense in International Law: An Emerging Standard for a Nuclear Age,” 59 N.Y.U.L. Rev. 187, 190-91 (1984) (noting that the Caroline case had transformed the right of self-defense from an excuse for armed intervention into a legal doctrine). Still earlier, see: Hugo Grotius, Of the Causes of War, and First of Self-Defense, and Defense of Our Property, reprinted in 2 Classics of International Law, 168-75 (Carnegie Endowment Trust, 1925) (1625); and Emmerich de Vattel, The Right of Self-Protection and the Effects of the Sovereignty and Independence of Nations, reprinted in 3 Classics of International Law, 130 (Carnegie Endowment Trust, 1916) (1758). Also, Samuel Pufendorf, The Two Books on the Duty of Man and Citizen According to Natural Law, 32 (Frank Gardner Moore., tr., 1927 (1682).

[13]Designed to guard against any US preemption, these measures could involve the attachment of “hair trigger” launch mechanisms to nuclear weapon systems and/or the adoption of “launch on warning” policies, possibly coupled with pre-delegations of launch authority. This means, incrementally, that the US could find itself endangered by certain steps taken by Pyongyang to prevent a belligerent preemption. Optimally, the United States would do everything possible to prevent such steps, especially because of expanded risks of accidental or unauthorized attacks launched against its own or allied armaments/ populations. But if such steps were to become a fait accompli, Washington could still calculate correctly that a preemptive strike would be legal and cost-effective. This is because the expected enemy retaliation, however damaging, could still appear more tolerable than the expected consequences of enemy first-strikes –  strikes likely occasioned by the antecedent failure of “anti-preemption” protocols.

[14] “Dialectic” is Plato’s term for what science and philosophy “do.” It is rooted in the Greek word for conversation, and stipulates that only through conversation can one genuinely discover “what each thing is” (Republic 533b).

[15] Under international law, every use of forcemust be judged twice: once with regard to the underlying right to wage war (jus ad bellum) and once to the means used in conducting a war (jus in bello). Following the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 and the United Nations Charter, there can be absolutely no right to aggressive war. However, the long-standing customary right of post-attack self-defense remains codified at Article 51 of the UN Charter. Similarly, subject to conformance, inter alia, with jus in bello criteria, certain instances of humanitarian intervention and collective security operations may also be consistent with jus ad bellum. The law of war, the rules of jus in bello, comprise: (1) laws on weapons; (2) laws on warfare; and (3) humanitarian rules. Codified primarily at The Hague and Geneva Conventions, these rules attempt to bring “discrimination” (aka “distinction”), “proportionality” and “military necessity” into belligerent calculations.

[16] International law is always part of the law of the United States. For early decisions on the US “incorporation” of authoritative international law by Chief Justice John Marshall, see: The Antelope, 23 U.S. (10 Wheat.) 66, 120 (1825); The Nereide, 13 U.S. (9 Cranch) 388, 423 (1815); Rose v. Himely, 8 U.S. (4 Cranch) 241, 277 (1808) and Murray v. The Schooner Charming Betsy, 6 U.S. (2 Cranch) 64, 118 (1804).

[17] “Is it an end that draws near,” inquires Karl Jaspers in Man in the Modern Age (1951) “or a beginning.”

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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Defense

What is driving Russia’s security concerns?

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The current discussions between Russia and NATO pivot on Russia’s requirement for the Alliance to provide legally binding security guarantees: specifically, that the alliance will not expand east, which will require revoking the 2008 NATO Bucharest summit decision that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO” .

It is useful to shed some light on the underlying points which drive Russia’s deep concerns. Moscow holds that the USSR was deceived on the issue of NATO expansion. At the same time, it is recognised that it was the fault of the Soviet leadership not to acquire legally binding guarantees at that time and the fault of the Russian leadership in the 1990s not to prevent NATO expansion per se. The current acrimony is caused by numerous examples of Western leaders making promises, blurred or straightforward, not to expand NATO further.

The Russian leadership after 1991 expressed this concern on many occasions, including the letters of Boris Yeltsin to Bill Clinton in October 1993 and then in December 1994.

But Russia’s proposals were not limited only to political statements. For example, in 2009 Moscow already put forward the draft of a legally binding European Security Treaty.

As to the issue of membership, it is unlikely that Moscow buys certain behind-the-scenes hints that the potential NATO membership of Ukraine is really only a rhetorical position. Often this approach is called “constructive ambiguity”. Moscow strongly believes, with good reason, that in the past all unofficial promises about the expansion of NATO were broken. Why would it believe them now?

Another fundamental point, from Russia’s point of view, is that beside the right to choose alliances, there is a crucial role for the concept of indivisible security, particularly the elements of equal security and the obligation that no country not to strengthen its own security at the expanse of the other. These principles are enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act (1975), in the Paris Charter (1990), in the NATO-Russia Founding Act (1997) and in the Charter of European Security (1999). Therefore, it should be the obligation of both sides to work out the parameters of indivisible security holistically and not to pretend that this is an invention of Moscow.

Arguably, indivisibility of security may include, for example, an obligation not to indicate the other side in military strategic concepts, doctrines, postures and planning as an enemy, rival or adversary. Among other things, it may also include an obligation to halt the development of military planning and military exercises, which designate Europe as a potentialtheatre of war between NATO and Russia. It is Pentagon, which in its official press statements indicate for example Georgia, Ukraine and Romania as “frontline states”.

A common Western argument against Russia’s current draft is that it is difficult to see how such a legally binding guarantee can be achieved when Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty stipulates that its parties, upon unanimous decision, can invite any other European state to join.

But to refer to Article 10 regarding the expansion of NATO after 1991 is not correct. In 1949 Article 10 of course did not envisage the open-door policy for the states that were in the Soviet bloc. After 1991 a qualitatively new situation arose. It was not Article 10 but a political decision of the United States in 1994-1995 to open a totally new chapter in the expansion. That decision was of a paramount importance.

Also, it is said that the United States is similarly unlikely to enter into a bilateral arrangement with Russia regarding NATO expansion, since this would violate Article 8 of the Treaty, whereby parties undertake not to enter into any international engagements in conflict with the Treaty.

Again, the point is not straightforward. The US de facto is the dominant member of NATO, which in most circumstances calls the shots there. According to history, when its national interests demanded, it took decisions that can be interpreted as conflicting or even undermining Article 8. For example, the security interests of the UK were clearly disregarded in 1956-1957 in the course of the Suez crisis due to the actions of the US. Or doesn’t the AUKUS run counter to the security interests of France? Or, for example, didn’t the way in which the US left Afghanistan undermine the security of some other members of NATO?

Short of the legally binding guarantee by NATO, what other options for a settlement might be satisfactory for Russia?

Russia deeply values the status of neutrality that several countries in Europe maintain. Indeed, it would be difficult to dismiss the fact that the international standing of Finland, Austria or Switzerland would have been much lower if not for their policy of neutrality. Moreover, one may say that the security of these countries is even higher than the security of some member states of NATO. So why not consider an option of neutrality, for example, for Ukraine, Moldova or Georgia, buttressed by certain international treaties like it was in the case of Austria?

Another back-up option would be to consider any further theoretical expansion of NATO on the conditions that were applied to the territory of the former German Democratic Republic—i.e. that NATO integrated troops or NATO infrastructure is not deployed on this territory.

Alternatively, a further option could be to place a moratorium on a new membership, for example for 15-20 years, which would not undermine Article 10 per se. For example, Turkey now for 16 years is a candidate-country of the European Union but nobody in the EU pretends that it can become a member in the foreseeable future.

Mutual security concerns could be met if a significant complex of agreements is approved. Firstly, agreements could be made on military-to-military communication, on military drills and exercises, and on patrols of strategic bombers.

Secondly, there could be a NATO-Russia comprehensive agreement on the basis of well-known IncSea and dangerous military activities agreements.

Thirdly, there is scope for an agreement on an obligation not to deploy in NATO members, bordering Russia, any strike systems, either nuclear or conventional.

And fourthly, in the league of its own, there could be an agreement on a Russia-NATO legally binding moratorium on the INF land-based systems, both nuclear and conventional.

Finally, on Ukraine, it is often said that Ukraine is much weaker than Russia and has no ability to launch and sustain a large-scale offensive against Russia. This misses the point.

Russia is concerned about two things. First, that there is no guarantee that sooner or later a third country would not decide to sell to or deploy in Ukraine strike systems that will endanger Russia’s security. Second, that Ukraine may attack not Russia but Donbas, like Poroshenko did in 2015, to try to solve the problem with military means and at the same time to try to involve NATO in military confrontation with Russia. This could be called a Saakashvili style of doing things.

It is unlikely that Russia will ever agree to restrain the movement of troops on its own territory, which would be quite humiliating. This would be a matter for a new CFE treaty if such a treaty is ever revived. Another question is what is considered “in proximity to the Ukrainian border”? At present, the deployment of most additional Russian troops, described by Western sources as “in proximity”, is minimum 200-300 km from the border. Does it mean that Russian troops will be prohibited from approaching its own borders in proximity, for example, of 400-500 km?

Meanwhile, on the other side there are more than 100 thousand Ukrainian troops concentrated on the contact line with Donbas, and much closer to it than the distance between the Russian troops and the Russian border. It is interesting to note that maps, which Western media these days is so fond of printing and which show locations where Russian military forces are stationed or deployed on the territory of Russia, do not have any indication of Ukrainian troops disposition. What happens if Ukrainian troops receive orders to attack Donbas akin to orders that Saakashvili gave his troops in 2008 to attack Tskhinval? It is clear that Moscow will never let Kiev take Donbas by force destroying the whole edifice of the political process based on the Minsk-2 agreements, which, importantly, in 2015 became a part of the UN Security Council Resolution. The additional Russian troops deployments are intended to deter Kiev from attacking Donbas and they are not a harbinger of “invasion of Ukraine”.

At present there are conflicting signals coming from all sides, which can be interpreted in many ways. Warmongers shout that diplomacy is a waste of time and that only muscle-flexing and even application of hard power will teach the other a lesson. Still, most top policymakers in Moscow, Washington and major European capitals seem to prefer further consultations and dialogue, both public and confidential. In the sphere of arms control in Europe and CBMs, on which there is an ample pool of expert recommendations, the US and NATO have let it be known that they are ready to talk seriously with Moscow.

The situations in the Baltic region and in the Black Sea region require urgent and lasting de-escalation. A compromise on the issue of further expansion of NATO should be reached in a way that satisfies both sides in spite of each having to make necessary concessions. A final imperative is that the US-Russia tracks on the future of strategic stability and cyber security should proceed unhindered. The P5 statement of January 2022 on preventing nuclear war and avoiding arms races needs to be followed by a P5 summit – the Russian proposal that was unanimously supported in 2020.

In summary, Western and Russian diplomats, both civil and military, need time to continue their work, which is of existential importance.

From our partner RIAC

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Defense

In 2022, military rivalry between powers will be increasingly intense

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“Each state pursues its own interest’s, however defined, in ways it judges best. Force is a means of achieving the external ends of states because there exists no consistent, reliable process of reconciling the conflicts of interest that inevitably arise among similar units in a condition of anarchy.” – Kenneth Waltz,

The worldwide security environment is experiencing substantial volatility and uncertainty as a result of huge developments and a pandemic, both of which have not been experienced in a century. In light of this, major countries including as Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and India have hastened their military reform while focusing on crucial sectors. 2022 might be a year when the military game between big nations heats up.

The military competition between major powers is first and foremost a battle for strategic domination, and the role of nuclear weapons in altering the strategic position is self-evident. In 2022, the nuclear arms race will remain the center of military rivalry between Russia, the United States, and other major countries, while hypersonic weapons will become the focus of military technology competition among major nations.

The current nuclear weapons competition between major nations will be more focused on technological improvements in weapon quality. In 2022, the United States would invest USD 27.8 billion in nuclear weapons development. It intends to buy Columbia-class strategic nuclear-powered submarines and improve nuclear command, control, and communication systems, as well as early warning systems.

One Borei-A nuclear-powered submarine, two Tu-160M strategic bombers, and 21 sets of new ballistic missile systems will be ordered by Russia. And its strategic nuclear arsenal is anticipated to be modernized at a pace of more than 90%. This year, the United Kingdom and France will both beef up their nuclear arsenals. They aspire to improve their nuclear forces by constructing new strategic nuclear-powered submarines, increasing the quantity of nuclear warheads, and testing new ballistic missiles.

Russia will commission the Zircon sea-based hypersonic cruise missiles this year and continue to develop new hypersonic missiles as a leader in hypersonic weapon technology. To catch up with Russia, the US will invest USD 3.8 billion this year in the development of hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic weapons are also being researched and developed in France, the United Kingdom, and Japan.

Surviving contemporary warfare is the cornerstone of the military competition between major countries, and keeping the cutting edge of conventional weapons and equipment is a necessary condition for victory. In 2022, major nations including as Russia and the United States will speed up the upgrade of primary war equipment.

The United States will concentrate on improving the Navy and Air Force’s weaponry and equipment. As planned, the US Navy will accelerate the upgrade and commissioning of weapons and equipment such as Ford-class aircraft carriers, Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines, and F-15EX fighter jets, as well as develop a high-end sea and air equipment system that includes new aircraft carrier platforms and fifth-generation fighter jets.

Russian military equipment improvements are in full swing, with the army receiving additional T-14 tanks, the navy receiving 16 major vessels, and the aerospace force and navy receiving over 200 new or better aircraft. The commissioning of a new generation of Boxer armored vehicles in the United Kingdom will be accelerated. India will continue to push for the deployment of its first homegrown aircraft carrier in combat. Japan will also continue to buy F-35B fighter jets and improve the Izumo, a quasi-aircraft carrier.

The US military’s aim this year in the domain of electromagnetic spectrum is to push the Air Force’s Project Kaiju electronic warfare program and the Navy’s next generation jammer low band (NGJ-LB) program, as well as better enhance the electronic warfare process via exercises. Pole-21, Krasukha, and other new electronic warfare systems will be sent to Russia in order to increase the automation of electronic warfare systems. The electronic warfare systems of the Type 45 destroyers, as well as the Type 26 and Type 31 frigates, will be upgraded by the United Kingdom. To build combat power, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces will continue to develop the newly formed 301st Electronic Warfare Company.

Around the world, a new cycle of scientific, technical, and military upheaval is gaining traction, and conflict is swiftly shifting towards a more intelligent form. Russia, the United States, and other major countries have boosted their investment in scientific research in order to win future battles, with a concentration on intelligent technology, unmanned equipment, and human-machine coordinated tactics.

This year, the US military intends to spend USD 874 million on research and development to boost the use of intelligent technologies in domains such as information, command and control, logistics, network defense, and others. More than 150 artificial intelligence (AI) projects are presently being developed in Russia.

This year, it will concentrate on adapting intelligent software for various weapon platforms in order to improve combat effectiveness. France, the United Kingdom, India, and other countries have also stepped up their AI research and attempted to use it broadly in areas such as intelligence reconnaissance, auxiliary decision-making, and network security.

In the scope of human coordinated operations, the United States was the first to investigate and has a distinct edge. The US intends to conduct the first combat test of company-level unmanned armored forces, investigate ways for fifth-generation fighter jets to coordinate with unmanned reconnaissance aircraft and drone swarms, and promote manned and unmanned warships working together on reconnaissance, anti-submarine, and mine-sweeping missions.

Russia will work to integrate unmanned equipment into manned combat systems as quickly as feasible, while also promoting the methodical development of drones and unmanned vehicles. Furthermore, France and the United Kingdom are actively investigating human-machine coordinated techniques in military operations, such as large urban areas.

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Spotlight on the Russia-Ukraine situation

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The United States of America and Russia have recently been at loggerheads over the issue of Ukraine.

Weeks ago the leaders of the two superpowers behind the Ukrainian situation convened a meeting on the crisis. Although they both drew a clear line between them during the meeting, they made no political commitment, thus showing that the political chess game surrounding Ukraine has only just begun.

In what was seen as a “frank and pragmatic” conversation by both sides, President Putin made it clear to President Biden that he was not satisfied with the implementation of the February 11, 2015 Minsk-2 Agreement (which, besides establishing ceasefire conditions, also reaffirmed arrangements for the future autonomy of pro-Russian separatists), as NATO continues to expand eastward. President Biden, in turn, noted that if Russia dared to invade Ukraine, the United States of America and its allies would impose strong “economic sanctions and other measures” to counterattack, although no US troop deployments to Ukraine were considered.

Although they both played their cards right and agreed that they would continue to negotiate in the future, the talks did not calm down the situation on the Ukrainian border and, after the two sides issued mutual civilian and military warnings, the future development on the Ukrainian border is still very uncertain.

Since November 2020 Russia has had thousands of soldiers stationed on Ukraine’s border. The size of the combat forces deployed has made the neighbouring State rather nervous.

The current crisis in Ukraine has deepened since the beginning of November 2021. Russia, however, has denied any speculation that it is about to invade Ukraine, stressing that the deployment of troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border is purely for defensive purposes and that no one should point the finger at such a deployment of forces on the territory of Russia itself.

It is obvious that such a statement cannot convince Ukraine: after the 2014 crisis, any problems on the border between the two sides attract attention and Ukraine still has sporadic conflicts with pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country.

Firstly, the fundamental reason why the US-Russian dispute over Ukraine is hard to resolve is that there is no reasonable position or room in the US-led European security architecture that matches Russian strength and status.

Over the past thirty-two years, the United States of America has forcibly excluded any reasonable proposal to establish broad and inclusive security in Europe and has built a post-Cold War European security framework that has crushed and expelled Russia, much as NATO did when it contained the Soviet Union in Europe in 1949-1990.

Moreover, Russia’s long cherished desire to integrate into the “European family” and even into the “Western community” through cooperation with the United States of America – which, in the days of the impotent Yeltsin, looked upon it not as an equal partner but as a semi-colony – has been overshadowed by the resolute actions of NATO, which has expanded eastward to further elevate its status as the sole superpower, at least in Europe, after its recent failure in Afghanistan.  

Maintaining a lasting peace after the great wars (including the Cold War) in the 20th century was based on treating the defeated side with tolerance and equality at the negotiating table. Facts have shown that this has not been taken on board by the policy of the United States of America and its Western fawners and sycophants. Treating Russia as the loser in the Cold War is tantamount to frustrating it severely and ruthlessly, thus depriving it of the most important constituent feature of the post-short century European security order.

Unless Russia reacts with stronger means, it will always be in a position of defence and never of equality. Russia will not accept any legitimacy for the persistence of a European security order that deprives it of vital security interests, wanting to make it a kind of protectorate surrounded by US-made nuclear bombs. The long-lasting Ukrainian crisis is the last barrier and the most crucial link in the confrontation between Russia, the United States of America and the West. It is a warning to those European countries that over the past decades have been deprived of a foreign policy of their own, not just obeying the White House’s orders.

Secondly, the Ukrainian issue is an important structural problem that affects the direction of European security construction and no one can afford to lose in this crisis.

While Europe can achieve unity, integrity and lasting peace, the key challenge is whether it can truly incorporate Russia. This depends crucially on whether NATO’s eastward expansion will stop and whether Ukraine will be able to resolve these two key factors on its own and permanently. NATO, which has continued to expand in history and reality, is the most lethal threat to security for Russia. NATO continues to weaken Russia and deprive it of its European statehood, and mocks its status as a great power. Preventing NATO from continuing its eastward expansion is probably the most important security interest not only of Russia, but also of European countries with no foreign policies of their own, but with peoples and public that do not certainly want to be dragged into a conventional war on the continent, on behalf of a country that has an ocean between Europe and itself as a safety belt.

The current feasible solution to ensure lasting security in Europe is for Ukraine not to join NATO, but to maintain a permanent status of neutrality, like Austria, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, etc. This is a prerequisite for Ukraine to preserve its territorial integrity and sovereignty to the fullest extent possible, and it is also the only reasonable solution for settling the deep conflict between Russia and the United States of America.

To this end, Russia signed the aforementioned Minsk-2 Agreement of 2015. Looking at the evolution of NATO over the past decades, however, we can see that it has absolutely no chance of changing a well-established “open door” membership policy.  

The United States of America and NATO will not accept the option of a neutral Ukraine, and the current level of political decision-making in the country is other-directed. For these reasons, Ukraine now appears morally dismembered, and bears a striking resemblance to the divided Berlin and the two pre-1989 Germanies. It can be said that the division of Ukraine is a sign of the new split in Europe after Cold War I, and the construction of the so-called European security – or rather  US hegemony – ends with the reality of a Cold War II between NATO and Russia. It must be said that this is a tragedy, as the devastating consequences of a war will be paid by the peoples of Europe, and certainly not by those from New England to California.

Thirdly, the misleading and deceptive nature of US-Russian diplomacy and the short-sightedness of the EU, with no foreign policy of its own regarding the construction of its own security, are the main reasons for the current lack of mutual trust between the United States of America – which relies on the servility of the aforementioned EU – and Russia, terrified by the nuclear encirclement on its borders.

The United States took advantage of the deep problems of the Soviet Union and of Russia’s zeal and policies for the self-inflicted change in the 1990s – indeed, a turning point – at the expense of “verbal commitment” diplomacy.

In 1990, on behalf of President George H. W. Bush’s Administration, US Secretary of State Baker made a verbal promise to the then Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, that “upon reunification, after Germany remaining within NATO, the organisation would not expand eastward”. President Clinton’s Administration rejected that promise on the grounds that it was its predecessor’s decision and that verbal promises were not valid, but in the meantime George H. W. Bush had incorporated the Baltic States into NATO.

In the mid-1990s, President Clinton indirectly made a verbal commitment to Russia’s then leader, the faint-hearted Yeltsin, to respect the red line whereby NATO should not cross the eastern borders of the Baltic States. Nevertheless, as already stated above, President George H. W. Bush’s Administration had already broken that promise by crossing their Western borders. It stands to reason that, in the eyes of Russia, the “verbal commitment diplomacy” is rightly synonymous with fraud and hypocrisy that the United States of America is accustomed to implementing with Russia. This is exactly the reason why Russia is currently insisting that the United States and NATO must sign a treaty with it on Ukraine’s neutrality and a ban on the deployment of offensive (i.e. nuclear) weapons in Ukraine.

Equally important is the fact that after Cold War I, the United States of America, with its mentality of rushing to grab the fruits of victory, lured 14 small and medium-sized countries into the process of expansion, causing crises in Europe’s peripheral regions and artfully creating Russophobia in the Central, Balkan and Eastern European countries.

This complete disregard for the “concert of great powers” – a centuries-old principle fundamental to ensuring lasting security in Europe – and the practice of “being penny wise and pound foolish” have artificially led to a prolonged confrontation between Russia and the European countries, in the same way as between the United States of America and Russia. The age-old trend of emphasising the global primacy of the United States of America by creating crises and inventing enemies reaffirms the tragic reality of its own emergence as a danger to world peace.

All in all, the Ukraine crisis is a key issue for the direction of European security. The United States will not stop its eastward expansion. Russia, forced into a corner, has no other way but to react with all its might and strength. This heralds Cold War II in Europe, and lasting turmoil and the possible partition of Ukraine will be its immutable destiny.

The worst-case scenario will be a conventional war on the continent between NATO troops and Russian forces, causing millions and millions dead, as well as destroying cities. The war will be conventional because the United States would never use nuclear weapons – but not out of the goodness of its heart, but out of fear of a Russian response that would remove the US territory from the NBC security level.

To the point that that we will miss the good old days of Covid-19.

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