Russian Operational Art of War in Crimea, March 2014

Russian Operational Art of War in Crimea, March 2014

  flags1

Russian flags fly from a watchtower at the Ukrainian Naval headquarters at Sevastopol.[i]

During March 2014 Russian military forces captured key Ukrainian army, navy and air force bases around Crimea. By the end of the month Russia had completed the annexation of the entire Crimean peninsula and was under pressure from the international order.[ii] The lightning military conquest of Crimea triggered a major Russia-NATO showdown that is still evolving. How was this stunning military success achieved at the operational and tactical levels? What does the Crimean conquest reveal about current Russian operational doctrine?

            Following the turmoil of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution Western analysts expected some form of blowback from the Russian Federation. Talk of Ukrainian inclusion in NATO as early as 2008 had challenged Russia’s control of the Black Sea Fleet base at Sevastopol, prompting then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to describe Ukraine as an “artificial country.”[iii] Russian control of the Black Sea Fleet base, however, had not been scheduled to expire until at least 2017.[iv] Had this occurred, the Black Sea Fleet would have been relocated at the naval base of Novorossiysk.[v] Events leading towards military intervention began to unfold on 25 February 2014 in the Crimean capital of Simferopol where hundreds of pro-Russian protesters were involved in demonstrations against the new Ukrainian government.[vi]

Covert military deployments began at the end of February. On 26 February military personnel wielding Russian flags established checkpoints along the highway between Simferopol and Sevastopol.[vii] On 27 February sixty pro-Russian gunmen, 30 of whom arrived by bus and were described as heavily armed, seized the Crimean parliament buildings.[viii] The next day, 28 February, Russian forces described by Rueter’s newswire as “Russian servicemen wearing helmets and armoured body protection and backed by armoured personnel carriers” blockaded Belbek airport at Sevastopol.[ix] Another 50 gunmen in fatigues but without markings and described as wearing “the same gear as those who seized the buildings of the Crimean parliament” laid siege to Simferopol airport. The gunmen arrived in three KAMAZ military vehicles without plates or markings.[x]

Meeting in an emergency session, the Crimean parliament voted no-confidence to the Prime Minister, appointing as a replacement, Sergey Aksyonov of the Crimea Russia Unity Party, who promptly moved for a referendum on secession from Ukraine with a preliminary date set for 25 May 2014.[xi]

Military Action in Crimea

Whatever the origin of the plan, the seizures and preparations prior to 1 March suggest the calculated and complex nature of the Crimean operation. The initially covert actions acted as the prelude to the breakout of Russian forces from the Sevastopol naval base.

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Info-graphic displaying the initial movements.[xii]

The Russian Federation Council, upper house of parliament, at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized the use of the Russian military to ensure the security of ethnic Russians living in the Crimean region.[xiii] According to statements made by Putin later on, there were approximately 22,000 Russian personnel in Crimea at the Black Sea Fleet base at Sevastopol prior to March 2014. [xiv]

Military action commenced on 2 March with a series of incidents involving the surrender and capture of Ukrainian marines at Feodosiya and the attempted hijacking of the Ukrainian navy ship Slavutych.[xv] A standoff quickly developed between the Ukrainian and Russian naval bases at Sevastopol.[xvi]

            The standoff continued on 3 March, with allegations that Alexander Vitko, the C-in-C Black Sea Fleet had issued an ultimatum to the Ukrainian forces in Crimea urging them to surrender.[xvii] Russian naval vessels blockaded the Ukrainian anti-submarine warfare (ASW) ship Ternopil and the command ship Slavutych in port at Sevastopol.[xviii] 200 unarmed Ukrainian soldiers from the 240th Tactical Air Brigade were ejected from and then attempted to renter Belbek airbase.[xix] The 204th Fighter Unit of the Ukrainian Air Force defected, delivering up to 49 combat aircraft including MiG-29 fighters.[xx] Russian soldiers next seized the ferry terminal at Kerch, a key crossing point from Russia to Crimea.[xxi] By this point the Ukrainian government suspected 16,000 Russian troops had “massed in Crimea”.[xxii] The US estimates put the number at a more cautious 6,000.[xxiii]

Mikoyan-Gurevich_MiG-29_(9-13),_Ukraine_-_Air_Force_AN1734687

Ukrainian MiG-29.[xxiv]

            On 4 March Vladimir Putin made a statement that the military forces in Crimea did not belong to Russia, but rather to local pro-Russian Crimean self defense forces.[xxv] Events continued to escalate the next day with the “unknown gunmen” in Simferopol taking UN special envoy Robert Serry hostage.[xxvi] 700 soldiers and officers from the 50th, 55th, and 147th anti-aircraft missile regiments at Yalta, Feodosiya and Fiolente defected. By 5 March as many as 5,500 Ukrainian personnel had defected, turning over hardware including 20 SA-11 and 30 S-300 SAM systems.[xxvii]

SA-11 system

SA-11 SAM system.[xxviii]

 S-300

S-300 launch vehicle.[xxix]           

            On 6 March gunmen seized the Simferopol Radio and Television Transmitting Station, taking the station off-air.[xxx] Russian Black Sea Fleet sailors next scuttled the old cruiser Ochakov at the entrance of Donuzlav Bay to act as a blockship: an attempt to prevent the Ukrainian Navy from sortieing to the Black Sea.[xxxi] According to the Ukrainian border service, Russia now had upwards of 30,000 soldiers in Crimea.[xxxii] The next day a second blockship was sunk near the Ochakov.[xxxiii]

            Over the next week, Russian forces captured additional buildings in the capital, and secured several border crossing points. The major triumph came on 11 March when the Simferopol International Airport was occupied by pro-Russian forces, effectively closing Crimean airspace- except for flights direct from Moscow.[xxxiv]

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Locations and descriptions of Ukrainian naval, air and army bases captured during March, 2014.[xxxv]

By 13 March, in advance of the Russian-backed referendum on Crimean secession, military drills were organized in Kursk, Belgorod and Rostov along the Ukrainian border. These exercises involved at least 10,000 soldiers, their vehicles and support aircraft, including six Su-27 fighters dispatched to Belarus in response to NATO F-16 deployments in Poland.[xxxvi] Attempts to deescalate prior to the 16 March referendum represented only slight friction for the Russian forces in Crimea, as they continued to seize Ukrainian military facilities.

            On 18 March masked gunmen entered Ukraine’s military topographic and navigation directorate at Simferopol, capturing the building. Two Ukrainian service members were killed in the gunfight that ensued.[xxxvii] The Ukrainian Fleet HQ at Sevastopol was then captured on 19 March, stormed by “several hundred militiamen”.[xxxviii]

International Reaction

 Obama

Monday 24 March 2014: US President Barack Obama announces Russia’s suspension from the G8.[xxxix]

Russia announced its annexation of the Crimean peninsula on Tuesday, 18 March 2014. The Ukrainian government moved to relocate its 25,000 military personnel and families to the mainland the following day.[xl] Sevastopol, along with the rest of the Crimean peninsula, had voted in the controversial plebiscite on 16 March to join the Russian Federation as the Crimean Federal District (26 thousand square kilometers and population 2 million).[xli] The Russian Duma ratified the bill of accession on 21 March 2014.[xlii] On 22 March, Russian soldiers backed by half a dozen infantry fighting vehicles captured the Ukrainian military base at Belbek, followed shortly by the air base at Novofedorivka.[xliii]

The month long military takeover came to a conclusion when the Ukrainian government agreed to withdraw its forces from the peninsula.[xlvii] On 26 March acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov ordered the withdrawal of Ukrainian military forces from Crimea.[xliv]

 20UKRAINE-articleLarge

Ukrainian naval officials, civilian and military personnel surrender Sevastopol. Unidentified armed men, suspected to be Russian soldiers, stand guard.[xlvi]

On 27 March the UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the referendum that had justified the Crimean peninsula’s absorption by the Russian Federation. The International Monetary Fund was at this point actively backing loans to the pro-European Ukrainian government to the tune of at least US $14 billion.[xlix] Russia had been expelled from the G8 Nations and Ukraine had withdrawn from the Soviet successor Commonwealth of Independent States.[l] US backed resolutions at the Security Council had been vetoed by Russia.[li]

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The news media could hardly ignore the stunning success of the Crimean operation: a showcase of Russia’s military prowess and modernization. Here unmarked Russian soldiers equipped with 100 (century) series AK assault rifles, Kevlar helmets, tinted goggles, and radio encryption units.[lii] Western military analysts went into overdrive, speculating on Putin’s next coup as early as 21 March.[xlviii]

On 8 April the Russian and Ukrainian governments signed an agreement of exchange whereby the 70 Ukrainian warships captured or surrendered during the March operation were returned to Ukraine.[liii] Also returned were 200 vehicles including T-64B main battle tanks and ZSU-23-4 Shilka self-propelled anti-aircraft artillery.[liv]

 tanks

Ukrainian T-64B MBTs are moved from the military base at Perevalne, Crimea, as part of the Ukrainian withdrawal from Crimea.[xlv]

By 25 April 2014 significant Russian contingents had massed on the Ukrainian border, and US Secretary of State John Kerry alleged that Russian “military intelligence services and special operators” were conducting operations across the border.[lv]

The crisis expanded. Following the March movements, NATO and Russia announced new military exercises. In early June US President Barack Obama announced a $1 billion commitment aimed at strengthening US military power in Eastern Europe.[lvi] Fighting around the Ukrainian border city of Donetsk escalated in July, leading to the 17 July 2014 Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 disaster.[lvii]

 mh17

Ukraine and Crimea showing location of MH17 crash.[lviii]

Conclusion

The Crimean operation revealed a transformation in Russian military affairs to a doctrinal focus on combined arms operations. The conquest of Crimea demonstrated a new capabilities of a Russian military equipped and trained for rapid deployment, small group tactics and covert operations, integrated at the operational level.[lix] Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have achieved his goal of developing a modernized Russian military, “mobile and well-equipped… that can respond rapidly and adequately to all potential threats” with an emphasis on the tactical and operational levels of war.[lx] Indeed, the new face of the Russian Forces (well armed, hi-tech, covert combat fatigues) was so alluring that it was employed by the RF MOD as a recruitment tool as early as 4 March 2014.[lxi]

Suffice it to say, Western military analysts must now assume that Russian troop movements of corps sized forces (30,000 to 50,000 combatants) in conjunction with combined naval-air-land operations represent a comfortable starting point for military intervention: a far cry from the 2008 war with Georgia.[lxii] The question of success with larger formations, such as the army sized military exercises carried out recently (summer 2013 far east exercises; 160,000 combatants)[lxiii] suggests the potential limitations of the Russian Defense Ministry’s focus on the operational context.[lxiv] Nevertheless, the RF executed a significant combined arms drill involving over 100 aircraft near Donetsk on 4 August 2014.[lxv]

Today

The NATO “Iron Sword” exercise in Lithuania kicked off 3 November 2014.[lxvi] NATO reported major Russian troop movements east of Ukraine on 4 November.[lxvii]

[i] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/20/world/europe/crimea.html?_r=1 [ii] en.wikipedia.org, “Timeline of 2014 Crimean Crisis” (wikimedia foundation, October 23, 2014), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_the_2014_Crimean_crisis#March_29. [iii] Steven Erlanger, “Russian Aggression Puts NATO in Spotlight,” The New York Times, March 18, 2014, online edition, sec. Europe, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/19/world/europe/russias-aggression-in-crimea-brings-nato-into-renewed-focus.html. [iv] Globalsecurity.org, “Sevastopol” (Globalsecurity.org, March 18, 2014), http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/sevastopol.htm. [v] Ibid. [vi] en.wikipedia.org, “Timeline of 2014 Crimean Crisis.” [vii] Mark Mackinnon, “Globe in Ukraine: Russian-Backed Fighters Restrict Access to Crimean City,” The Globe and Mail, February 26, 2014, online edition, sec. World, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/tension-in-crimea-as-pro-russia-and-pro-ukraine-groups-stage-competing-rallies/article17110382/#dashboard/follows/?cmpid=tgc. [viii] en.wikipedia.org, “Timeline of 2014 Crimean Crisis” (wikimedia foundation, October 23, 2014), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_the_2014_Crimean_crisis#March_29.; Sabra Ayres, “Crimea Sets Date for Autonomy Vote amid Gunmen, Anti-Kiev Protests,” The Christian Science Monitor, February 27, 2014, online edition, sec. Europe, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2014/0227/Crimea-sets-date-for-autonomy-vote-amid-gunmen-anti-Kiev-protests-video. [ix] Reuters UK, “Military Airport in Ukraine’s Crimea Taken over by Russian Soldiers-Interfax,” Uk.reuters.com, February 28, 2014, online edition, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/02/28/ukraine-crisis-idUKL6N0LX0CG20140228. [x] Interfax-Ukraine, “About 50 Armed Men in Military Uniform Seize Simferopol Airport in Early Hours of Friday,” Ukraine News Agency, February 28, 2014, 50, http://en.interfax.com.ua/news/general/193305.html. [xi] Ayres, “Crimea Sets Date for Autonomy Vote amid Gunmen, Anti-Kiev Protests.” [xii] David Miller, “Russia’s Crimea Conquest,” blog, David Miller: Geography Instructor, (March 10, 2014), http://blogs.nvcc.edu/damiller/2014/03/10/russias-crimea-conquest/. [xiii] rt.com, “Putin: Russian Citizens, Troops Threatened in Ukraine, Need Armed Forces’ Protection” (Russia Today, March 1, 2014), http://rt.com/news/russia-troops-ukraine-possible-359/. [xiv] Matt Smith and Alla Eshchenko, “Ukraine Cries ‘Robbery’ as Russia Annexes Crimea,” CNN, March 18, 2014, online edition, sec. europe, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/03/18/world/europe/ukraine-crisis/. [xv] en.wikipedia.org, “Timeline of 2014 Crimean Crisis.” [xvi] Haroon Siddique and Ben Quinn, “Ukrainian and Russian Troops in Standoff at Crimean Military Base – As It Happened,” Theguardian.com, March 3, 2014, online edition, sec. world, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/02/ukraine-warns-russia-crimea-war-live. [xvii] en.wikipedia.org, “Timeline of 2014 Crimean Crisis.” [xviii] Ibid. [xix] Alan Cullison and Margaret Coker, “Confrontation at Crimea Air Base Defused – For Now,” The Wallstreet Journal, March 4, 2014, online edition, sec. Europe, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304360704579419493589067568. [xx] The Voice of Russia, “ARC Government: Three Anti-Aircraft Missile Regiments of Ukraine’s Armed Forces Join Crimean Side,” Voice of Russia, TASS, RIA, Interfax, March 5, 2014, online edition, http://voiceofrussia.com/news/2014_03_05/ARC-Government-three-anti-aircraft-missile-regiment-of-the-Armed-Forces-of-Ukraine-join-Crimean-side-8049/. [xxi] The Associated Press, “U.S. Warns Russia against Threatening Ukraine Navy,” CBCnews, March 3, 2014, online edition, sec. world, http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/u-s-warns-russia-against-threatening-ukraine-navy-1.2557443. [xxii] Ibid. [xxiii] Ibid. [xxiv] http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f2/Mikoyan-Gurevich_MiG-29_%289-13%29,_Ukraine_-_Air_Force_AN1734687.jpg [xxv] BBC News, “Putin: Russia Force Only ‘Last Resort’ in Ukraine,” Bbc.com, March 4, 2014, online edition, sec. Europe, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26433309. [xxvi] Agence France Presse, “UN Envoy in Crimea Detained by Gunmen: Ukraine Ministry,” The Daily Star, March 5, 2014, online edition, sec. International, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/International/2014/Mar-05/249351-ukraine-un-special-representative-held-in-crimea.ashx#axzz2v6 peiIFE. [xxvii] The Voice of Russia, “ARC Government: Three Anti-Aircraft Missile Regiments of Ukraine’s Armed Forces Join Crimean Side.” [xxviii] http://static.businessinsider.com/image/53ce3cdc6da811713812a151-1200/image.jpg [xxix] http://en.ria.ru/images/18136/88/181368800.jpg [xxx] Interfax-Ukraine, “Gunmen Seize Simferopol Television Station, Turn off Channel 5, 1+1, Turn on Rossiya 24,” KyivPost, March 6, 2014, online edition, sec. Ukraine, https://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/gunmen-seize-simferopol-television-station-turn-off-channel-5-11-turn-on-rossiya-24-338610.html. [xxxi] navaltoday.com, “Russia Sinks Ship to Block Ukrainian Navy Ships,” Naval Today, March 6, 2014, http://navaltoday.com/2014/03/06/russia-sinks-ship-to-block-ukrainian-navy-ships/. [xxxii] La Prensa, “Ukraine: 30,000 Russian Troops in Crimea,” Laprensasa.com, March 7, 2014, online edition, http://www.laprensasa.com/309_america-in-english/2445432_ukraine-30-000-russian-troops-in-crimea.html. [xxxiii] en.wikipedia.org, “Timeline of 2014 Crimean Crisis.” [xxxiv] The Standard, “Crimea Bars Flights,” Hong Kong Standard, March 11, 2014, online edition, sec. World, http://www.thestandard.com.hk/breaking_news_detail.asp?id=47253&icid=4&d_str=. [xxxv]http://www.kyivpost.com/media/images/2014/03/21/p18jgqoftd1kue1ak97qotv41uc14/original.jpg [xxxvi] Steven Myers and Alison Smale, “Russian Troops Mass at Border With Ukraine,” The New York Times, March 13, 2014, online edition, sec. Europe, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/14/world/europe/ukraine.html. [xxxvii] Smith and Eshchenko, “Ukraine Cries ‘Robbery’ as Russia Annexes Crimea.” [xxxviii] The Associated Press, “Militiamen Storm the Ukrainian Navy’s Headquarters,” Haaretz, March 19, 2014, online edition, sec. World, http://www.haaretz.com/news/world/1.580662. [xxxix] Alison Smale and Michael D. Shear, “Russia Is Ousted From Group of 8 by U.S. and Allies,” The New York Times, March 24, 2014, Online edition, sec. Europe, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/25/world/europe/obama-russia-crimea.html​. [xl] David Herszenhorn and Andrew Kramer, “Ukraine Plans to Withdraw Troops From Russia-Occupied Crimea,” The New York Times, March 20, 2014, sec. Europe, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/20/world/europe/crimea. [xli] Wolframalpha.com search for “Crimea”, 3 November 2014: http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=Crimea [xlii] http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_districts_of_Russia [xliii] Carol Morello and Will Englund, “Ukrainian Military Outposts in Crimea,” The Washington Post, March 23, 2014, online edition, sec. World, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/monitors-set-to-deploy-to-ukraine-to-try-to-contain-crisis/2014/03/22/742e4898-b1a4-11e3-a49e-76adc9210f19_story.html. [xliv] Smith and Eshchenko, “Ukraine Cries ‘Robbery’ as Russia Annexes Crimea.” [xlv] http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/dam/assets/140326120216-01-ukraine-0326-horizontal-gallery.jpg [xlvi] http://static01.nyt.com/images/2014/03/20/world/20Crimea/20UKRAINE-articleLarge.jpg http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/20/world/europe/crimea.html?_r=1 [xlvii] Herszenhorn and Kramer, “Ukraine Plans to Withdraw Troops From Russia-Occupied Crimea.” [xlviii] Michael B. Kelley, “AFTER CRIMEA: Top Intelligence Analysts Forecast The 5 Things That Putin Might Do Next,” Business Insider, March 21, 2014, online edition, http://www.businessinsider.com/wikistrat-the-next-russian-military-invasion-2014-3. [xlix] BBC News, “Ukraine: UN Condemns Crimea Vote as IMF and US Back Loans,” Bbc.com, March 27, 2014, online edition edition, sec. Europe, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26776416. [l] Smale and Shear, “Russia Is Ousted From Group of 8 by U.S. and Allies.” [li] Herszenhorn and Kramer, “Ukraine Plans to Withdraw Troops From Russia-Occupied Crimea.” [lii] C. J. Chivers and David Herszenhorn, “In Crimea, Russia Showcases a Rebooted Army,” The New York Times, April 2, 2014, online edition, sec. Europe, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/03/world/europe/crimea-offers-showcase-for-russias-rebooted-military.html. [liii] Ruslan Pukhov and Andrei Frolov, “The Ukrainian Crisis: Possible Implications for the Russian Military Industry” (valdaiclub.com, May 12, 2014), http://www.cast.ru/eng/?id=542. [liv] Tim Ripley, “Russia Begins Returning Ukraine Naval Vessels and Aircraft,” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, April 12, 2014, online edition, sec. Military Capabilities, http://www.janes.com/article/36695/russia-begins-returning-ukraine-naval-vessels-and-aircraft. [lv] C. J. Chivers, Neil MacFarquhar, and Andrew Higgins, “Russia to Start Drills, Warning Ukraine Over Mobilization,” The New York Times, April 24, 2014, online edition, sec. Europe, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/25/world/europe/ukraine-crisis.html?_r=0. [lvi] rt.com, “Obama Pledges $1bn for More Troops, Military Drills in E. Europe,” Russia Today, June 3, 2014, online edition, http://rt.com/news/163320-obama-poland-troops-europe/. [lvii] en.wikipedia.org, “Malaysia Airlines Flight 17” (wikimedia foundation, 4 November), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malaysia_Airlines_Flight_17. [lviii]http://graphics8.nytimes.com/newsgraphics/2014/07/17/mh17/8053a9ff105c5aaadbed871b49cde28eaa2fa7e1/aviation-ai2html-600.png [lix] Chivers and Herszenhorn, “In Crimea, Russia Showcases a Rebooted Army.” [lx] Vladimir Putin, “Expanded Meeting of the Defence Ministry Board,” Eng.kremlin.ru, February 27, 2013, online edition, sec. News, http://eng.kremlin.ru/news/5050. [lxi] Simon Shuster, “Putin’s ‘Test’ in Crimea Gives Russian Army a Rare Chance to Gloat,” Time.com, March 31, 2014, online edition, sec. World, http://time.com/44375/putin-crimea-russia-army/. [lxii] Konstantin Makienko, “The Russian Air Force Didn’t Perform Well during the Conflict in South Ossetia,” Russia & CIS Observer 23, no. 4 (November 2008), http://www.cast.ru/eng/?id=328. [lxiii] Chivers and Herszenhorn, “In Crimea, Russia Showcases a Rebooted Army.” [lxiv] Graeme Mackay, “Ukraine, Russia and the Crimea: A History,” Yahoo! News, April 2, 2014, http://news.yahoo.com/ukraine-russia-crimea-history-184941601.html. [lxv] Alec Luhn, “Russia Holds Huge Military Exercises near Ukraine Border,” Theguardian.com, August 4, 2014, online edition, sec. world, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/04/russia-military-exercises-ukraine-border. [lxvi] rt.com, “Iron Sword 2014: NATO Stages Massive Military Drill in Lithuania,” Russia Today, November 3, 2014, online edition, http://rt.com/news/201771-lithuania-iron-sword-wargame/. [lxvii] AFP, Reuters, DPA, “Ukraine Readies for Attacks in East,” Dw.de, November 4, 2014, online edition, http://www.dw.de/ukraine-readies-for-attacks-in-east/a-18039032.

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