A Guide to the Challenges Facing President Obama's Nuclear Abolition Agenda

Jul 21, 2009

As the first phase of its new program on U.S. Global Engagement, the Carnegie Council examines the critical and evolving U.S.-Russia relationship. To aid in this exploration, the Council entered into a joint project with the Moscow-based Institute for United States and Canada Studies [ISKRAN], the most established and prestigious of Russia's think tanks devoted to bilateral relations.

The cooperative project comprised a series of papers on three critical topics, in each case with submissions from both Russian and American experts. The topics are: arms control, with a particular focus on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, with related missile defense questions; Afghanistan and the future of the NATO alliance; and security, military, and energy issues in the Arctic region.

We now present the first set of papers, those on arms control. The papers speak for themselves, but three general observations may be made: First, arms control and treaties governing both offensive and defensive military capabilities remain absolutely central to U.S.-Russia relations; second, much as the Obama administration may wish to do so, it is not realistic to expect that Russia will agree to "decouple" discussion of the different components of the arms control agenda; and third, the paper writers in general exhibit a healthy skepticism to temper long-range expectations following the recent meetings of the two presidents in Moscow—while offering suggestions for a way ahead to benefit both the United States and Russia.

—David Speedie, Director, U.S. Global Engagement Program

The other three papers in this first set are:

In a historic speech in Prague on April 5, President Obama committed the United States to working toward a world free of nuclear weapons. In doing so, the President joined the authority of his office to an enterprise which has enjoyed a renaissance of new energy and increasing international support ever since the publication in the Wall Street Journal in 2007 and 2008 of two landmark op-ed pieces authored by Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry, and Sam Nunn advocating a path toward ultimate total elimination of nuclear weapons. The case for nuclear weapons abolition advanced by President Obama is built not on the familiar refrain of disarmament advocates that nuclear weapons are inherently morally unjustifiable and destabilizing, but on the pragmatic grounds that the technology of nuclear weapons development is proliferating to states such as North Korea and Iran, that extremists and terrorists such as al-Qaeda make no secret about their desire to obtain and use nuclear weapons against us, and that the best way, in the long run, to prevent such proliferation is for the nations of the world to rid themselves of nuclear weapons. In advancing his case for nuclear weapons abolition, President Obama acknowledged the moral and ethical concerns presented by nuclear weapons, even to assert—uncharacteristically for an American President—that "as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act." But, as with the four statesmen, the President emphasized the uncomfortably concrete grounds for abolition: that the technology of nuclear weapons development is proliferating to states such as North Korea and Iran, that extremists and terrorists such as al-Qaeda make no secret about their desire to obtain and use nuclear weapons against us, and that the best way, in the long run, to prevent proliferation is for the nations of the world to rid themselves of these weapons.

If this sounds like a monumentally tall order, it is. And President Obama would agree. As he admitted in his Prague speech, "This goal will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence." If this sounds like a familiar goal articulated by numerous independent commissions and UN coalitions over the past few decades, one would be technically correct. But recognition that past disarmament initiatives have had no discernable effect on international affairs should not be used as an excuse to cynically dismiss the President's long-term goal. Indeed, what makes the situation fundamentally different now is precisely that the goal is being embraced and given energy by the President of the United States. Also distinguishing this call for abolition different from many in the past is that the President and senior statesmen, such as Kissinger, Shultz, Perry and Nunn, alike are not just presenting a vision, but they are identifying and urging pragmatic, concrete steps that will be necessary to help realize the vision. It is time to pay attention.

Within his first few months in office, President Obama has laid out an extremely ambitious agenda of specific initiatives designed to reduce both the numbers of nuclear arms as well as the role and importance ascribed to nuclear arms in our own national security strategy and, thereby, in international security calculations more broadly. This agenda is thus far comprised of four major initiatives that the President wants to see completed during his first term:

  • negotiation and completion of a new strategic arms reduction treaty to replace the current START agreement;

  • aggressive pursuit of U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT);

  • pursuit of a new international treaty to verifiably end the production worldwide of fissile materials intended for use in nuclear weapons—a so-called Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty (FMCT); and

  • a commitment to strengthen the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by augmenting the inspections capabilities and authorities of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), establishing an International Fuel Bank to supply the growing demand for civilian nuclear energy without increasing the possibility of proliferating nuclear weapons, and securing international commitment to punish states found in violation of the treaty.

Each of these initiatives but the last marks a dramatic reversal of Bush Administration policies, and progress on the first two will significantly help prospects for realizing U.S. aims with regard to the latter two. Many nations have perceived a lack of substantial progress toward strategic arms reductions on the part of both the United States and Russia and the failure of the United States to ratify the CTBT as reflective of a lack of commitment to meet the NPT's Article VI obligation of the Nuclear Weapons States to disarm.

Positive developments notwithstanding, President Obama's initiatives are only the initial steps on the road to nuclear weapons abolition. It is hoped that, if successful, the President's initiatives will pave the way for further nuclear weapons reductions and actions to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in security calculations. But, a closer look at the prospects of each of these initiatives reveals just how challenging the road to abolition will be. Here, at the outset of that road, it would be advisable to rein in expectations of rapid progress. In the near term and more likely for many years to come, the United States will see the need to maintain a reliable and credible nuclear deterrent force. As the analysis below seeks to indicate, it promises to be an arduous journey, not just in the long haul, but even in meeting the aims of the President's first-term initiatives.

A New Agreement to Replace START

So, let's begin with some good news: Before the end of 2009 the United States and Russia will almost certainly successfully conclude a new strategic arms reduction agreement that will replace the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START) reached in 1991, and not only because START expires on December 5 of this year. That expiration date lends urgency to the push, but success in reaching agreement is also foreseeable because Washington and Moscow are already in substantial agreement regarding the essential parameters of what should be in the replacement treaty.

Both agree that further reductions in strategic nuclear weapons—warheads as well as delivery systems—to levels below those agreed to in START and the 2002 Moscow Treaty (formally known as the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty) are acceptable and in their national interests. Both also agree that, except for the need for some streamlining and updating, robust verification protocols that resemble those provided by START are necessary. Finally, both agree that a new legally-binding arms reduction treaty is needed to address the shortcomings of the Moscow Treaty, not the least of which are that the Moscow treaty's terms expire on the same day that the it goes into force (i.e., December 31, 2012) and that verification of it's terms depend entirely upon the protocols established by START. In other words, absent a new replacement treaty for START, or an extension of START, then, from December 2009 forward for three full years, there would be no agreed set of measures for each side to verify whether the terms of the Moscow Treaty were even being met.

START established a limit of 1,600 delivery system (i.e., submarines, aircraft, and intercontinental ballistic missiles) for each nation as well as limits on the number of warheads (i.e., 6,000), including, through elaborate counting rules, the number of warheads that could be "attributed" to each delivery system. The Moscow Treaty established a new, lower limit on the number of warheads (1,700 to 2,200), but set no limits on the number of delivery systems, and was silent on counting rules.

It would be reasonable to expect that the new strategic arms reduction negotiations, just now getting underway, will result in an agreement to limit the number of warheads and delivery systems to approximately 1,500 and 1,000 respectively. Russia is also expected to push for new counting rules and tighter constraints on delivery vehicles. Specifically, Moscow wants any new agreement to count those U.S. delivery systems whose nuclear warheads are projected to be replaced with conventional warheads—so-called Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS)—against the agreement's new nuclear delivery system limits. Finally, Moscow wants to tightly circumscribe the U.S. ability to take warheads that have been retired from its delivery systems and add them back on to those systems—a technical issue known as "upload" potential. Experts believe the United States is likely to agree to this condition.

That, or something very much like it, will be the essential substance of the new strategic arms reduction agreement between the United States and Russia. It will be a modest outcome that will displease those who have been urging and expecting deeper reductions. So, what can be expected of subsequent steps designed to achieve significantly deeper reductions of the kind that would reflect real progress toward abolition? The fact is that such steps will be increasingly complex and difficult to take. This is because issues that in prior negotiations could be discretely treated or set aside altogether will come to be seen as increasingly important, interconnected and co-dependent as ever deeper reductions are considered. Four such issues stand out: missile defenses, conventional weapons capabilities, other nuclear weapons states, and non-strategic nuclear weapons. A brief treatment of each helps to demonstrate the immense difficulty that lays ahead in achieving deep nuclear arms reductions.

Missile Defenses. As is by now well-known, Russia is adamantly opposed to U.S. plans to construct ballistic missile defense sites in the Czech Republic and Poland. What is less well appreciated is that Russian concern with U.S. missile defenses is likely to grow as strategic nuclear weapons reductions are achieved, even if the plans for the European sites did not exist. Moscow's worry is that, at some point, U.S. abilities would be such that Washington might contemplate launching a first strike under the assumption that its missile defenses would be able to effectively deflect a Russian retaliatory strike. At some juncture in the nuclear arms reductions process—probably sooner rather than later—Moscow will firmly insist that the price to be paid for agreement to deep strategic nuclear weapons reductions is hard limits, if not an outright ban, on missile defense systems. That U.S. allies will have a concrete interest in this issue should be lost on no one. After all, it is not only NATO allies like Poland and the Czech Republic who might feel slighted by the possibility of the United States walking back its commitments, but also Pacific allies like Japan and South Korea, who count upon U.S. missile defenses to help defend them against attack.

Conventional Weapons. As deeper strategic arms reductions are considered, concern over conventional weapons capabilities will grow, vastly complicating and slowing progress on the road to abolition. This is due to Russia's recognition that the United States already enjoys substantial advantages in conventional capabilities. In future strategic arms negotiations, Russia is certain to expand its position on conventional weapons, now focused on the U.S.' projected Conventional Prompt Global Strike system, in an attempt to constrain other advanced U.S. conventional weapons systems—a position that is sure to meet strong, across the board opposition, in the Congress, in the Pentagon, within the administration itself. Finally, as deeper nuclear arms cuts are considered, critics of disarmament will raise a fundamental objection related to conventional weapons, namely that in shedding ourselves of nuclear weapons, we may be making the world safe again for conventional war between the major powers.

Other Nuclear Weapons States. As deeper strategic arms reductions occur between the United States and Russia—reductions that would take the parties substantially below 1,000 warheads—the negotiations will need to be opened up to include the other nuclear weapons states. At first, this would entail involving China, France and the United Kingdom. At even lower numbers, in the neighborhood of 400 warheads and below, the other four states with nuclear weapons—Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea—would need to be brought into the discussions. If current bilateral arms reductions negotiations with Russia are difficult and future negotiations of deeper cuts more difficult still, imagine the degree of difficulty in reaching agreement when the negotiations are multilateralized.

Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons. Sometimes referred to as "tactical," or short-range nuclear weapons, these weapons are not yet on the agenda of strategic arms reductions discussions with Russia. But they will be; it is just a matter of time. The United States maintains several hundred such weapons forward deployed in Europe, while Russia deploys several thousand such weapons within its borders. As the numbers of strategic nuclear weapons are negotiated downward, Washington will need to consider addressing the resulting disparity in non-strategic weapons through its negotiations with Moscow, who will have little incentive to respond constructively, given Russia's disproportionate numerical advantage.

Many disarmament advocates have argued for a withdrawal of U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons from Europe for quite some time. The argument is that these weapons no longer have any operational utility as they were deployed to offset the sizeable advantage enjoyed by Soviet conventional forces—a quantitative advantage that disappeared with the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union—and that their number, size and geographic dispersal makes both the U.S. and Russian weapons difficult and costly to control and secure. In short, they are proliferation nightmares. Critics point out that such arguments neglect the views of our allies, who see these weapons as concrete symbols of U.S. extended deterrence guarantees. And to be sure, the high value of these weapons has been frequently reaffirmed, most emphatically, in NATO's 1999 "Strategic Concept." The Strategic Concept asserts that "The Alliance will maintain for the foreseeable future an appropriate mix of nuclear and conventional forces based in Europe…The Alliance's conventional forces alone cannot ensure credible deterrence. Nuclear weapons make a unique contribution in rendering the risks of aggression against the Alliance incalculable and unacceptable. Thus, they remain essential to preserve the peace." Many U.S. allies, the argument proceeds, especially the newer member states of NATO as well as Turkey and Japan would interpret a withdrawal of the non-strategic nuclear weapons as a significant weakening of U.S. security commitments and, in response, some allies might well undertake nuclear weapons programs of their own to ensure their security.

Such warnings cannot be dismissed lightly. The take-away for U.S. officials is the necessity of continuously consulting with U.S. allies as major steps to reduce the number of nuclear weapons are contemplated. That this will greatly slow progress toward eventual abolition may displease some, but it is a necessary price that must be paid.

Even this cursory review of the four issues that lie just beyond the initial round of strategic arms reductions discussions demonstrates that truly deep reductions in the nuclear weapons arsenals of the United States and Russia will be profoundly difficult to achieve. Still, there are three other initiatives on the President's abolition agenda that do not involve direct reductions in nuclear arms even though each contributes significantly to the goal of abolition.

Ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

In October 1999, the Senate rejected ratification of the CTBT by a vote of 51-48, falling far short of the 67 votes necessary for ratification. Over the past few years, there has been growing support across the U.S. political spectrum for ratification of the CTBT, which prohibits conducting any nuclear weapons test explosion or any other nuclear explosion anywhere.

Many experts see ratification of the CTBT as essential to restoring confidence in the nonproliferation regime. Indeed, the CTBT has long been seen as a litmus test of the Nuclear Weapons States' commitment to their obligation under Article VI of the NPT to pursue measures leading to nuclear disarmament. Moreover, a key part of the bargain that secured the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 and at the 2000 NPT Review Conference was commitment on part of the Nuclear Weapons States to achieve the CTBT. U.S. failure to ratify the CTBT has come at a cost. It has repeatedly put the United States on the defensive at different international nonproliferation meetings, including the NPT Review Conferences. It has complicated the U.S.'s ability to persuade other states to address the challenges posed to the NPT regime by countries such as North Korea and Iran. Finally, it has served as a convenient rationale for other states to avoid embracing important new non-proliferation measures such as the IAEA's Additional Protocol, which requires the IAEA to assess the entire nuclear fuel cycle through intrusive verification measures such as short-notice inspections of suspected facilities.

U.S. ratification of the CTBT does not ensure its entry into force; for that Washington would need to mount an extensive diplomatic strategy. To date, 180 countries have signed the CTBT and 145 countries have ratified it, including all U.S. NATO allies. Nine countries must still ratify the CTBT for it to achieve entry into force; the United States and China are the two key holdouts. China has indicated on numerous occasions that it will ratify the CTBT as soon as it is confident that the United States will do so. Many Indian scholars and former policy makers argue that if the United States ratifies the CTBT, India will also do so. The major diplomatic efforts will likely focus on encouraging Egypt and Pakistan to ratify the Treaty.

But while U.S. ratification would appear to be the key to breaking the international logjam preventing the CTBT's entry into force, the Obama Administration's success in securing ratification is by no means assured. Indeed, the Administration will face major political challenges in securing the 67 votes necessary for the Treaty's passage. Senate critics of the treaty oppose the CTBT based on the claims that adherence to its terms cannot be effectively verified and that in the long term the United States cannot maintain confidence in the reliability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent force in the absence of testing. Both of these arguments were used in the 1999 Senate debate to help defeat ratification; both have largely been refuted by subsequent studies.

Nevertheless, such arguments are by now well known on Capitol Hill and Senators are not likely to be swayed by any additional empirical details. Indeed, the vote is likely to split along highly partisan lines with all 57 Democrats plus two independents supporting the Treaty and all Republicans opposed. If seated in time, Senator Al Franken of Minnesota would make 60 votes, but securing the final seven votes necessary for ratification will be extremely difficult and if it occurs at all, it will likely be as a result of major compromises whose contours could only be a matter of guesswork at this time. Thus, the foremost challenge for the Obama Administration on the CTBT front lies not in persuading the Russians, or other nations, but on the domestic front.

Negotiating a Verifiable Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty

Member states of the U.N.'s 65-member Conference on Disarmament in Geneva have been discussing a proposed treaty banning the production of fissile materials (i.e., plutonium and highly enriched uranium) for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices since the idea was introduced in 1993. If agreed and actually adhered to, the FMCT would serve the goals of nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and aid in the prevention of nuclear terrorism. But negotiations have made little progress because of a variety of issues, the most challenging of which is verification that the treaty's terms are being honored.

Experts have advanced a number of approaches for how such a treaty might be effectively verified, but a common thread running through several is that they would be based on the IAEA's extensive experience in safeguarding nuclear materials and activities, supplemented by the Additional Protocol. The problem is that while such measures might be effective, they are highly intrusive, which is part of the reason why few states, nuclear and non-nuclear alike, have agreed to the most intrusive measures of the Additional Protocol. Not until the final days of the second term—on January 9, 2009 to be precise—did the Bush Administration enter into force the U.S. ratification of the Additional Protocol. But, apparently (for it is not completely clear), under the Obama Administration, the United States is set to break from the "Perm-5" and embrace the full scope of the Additional Protocol; whether China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom follow suit remains to be seen. But, if the United States and Russia agree to substantial strategic nuclear arms reductions, then China will not have as great an incentive to hold on to the option of producing more fissile materials for more nuclear weapons in the future, and it might agree to a verifiable FMCT. That said, the chances that India, Pakistan, and Israel would actually consent to highly intrusive inspections are very slim.

Strengthening the Non-Proliferation Treaty

The last of President Obama's initiatives entails a commitment to strengthen the nuclear NPT—the international legal framework for preventing proliferation. He proposes to do so by augmenting the IAEA's inspections capabilities and authorities, establishing an International Fuel Bank to supply the growing demand for civilian nuclear energy without increasing the possibility of proliferating nuclear weapons, and securing international commitment to punish states found in violation of the NPT.

The Administration's approach for augmenting IAEA capabilities and authorities largely involves providing more resources and urging other nations to provide more resources and, as mentioned above, apparently signing the United States up to the full scope of the IAEA's Additional Protocol. Additional resources are long overdue for an international agency whose mission is of such consequence to global stability.

President Obama's support of an International Fuel Bank seeks to address the dilemma of reducing the chances for nuclear proliferation even as nations build more civilian nuclear infrastructure in the years ahead in an effort to meet projected energy demands and climate change concerns. The technologies necessary to the production of both civilian nuclear power and nuclear weapons extensively overlap. An International Fuel Bank would store uranium enriched to the level needed for civilian nuclear power plants and disburse it to nations which have agreed not to make the material themselves. This would serve the end of consolidating and better controlling the production and use of civilian fissile materials at a time of growing concern over proliferation. The idea of such a bank has been resisted by many nations on the grounds that it would violate their right to civilian nuclear energy technology and would constitute an infringement of their sovereignty. To surmount these objections, the IAEA emphasizes that the bank would provide a guaranteed supply at below-market prices. To date, these incentives have not won over the necessary support from non-nuclear weapons states, but many experts believe that with U.S. leadership on the matter—as evinced in President Obama's initiative—they will.

Finally, the President's third objective of securing international commitment to punish states found in violation of the NPT is aimed at rallying the NPT member states to take concrete action with regard to North Korea and Iran, and more generally, other nations that would contemplate following their example. There are a number of rationales offered to explain why the international community has not taken more concerted action regarding such violations. One is that U.S. policies in this regard amount to an effort to deny nations their right to civilian nuclear technology, and is, in the final analysis, part of a larger effort to lock-in a world of nuclear haves and have-nots. A second rationale is that the United States itself is in no position to make such demands because it is not living up to its obligation of pursuing disarmament. A third argument is that U.S. claims that other nations are pursuing nuclear weapons are not to be believed; here, the U.S.'s post-9/11 claims of Iraq's WMD program are cited as the prime example.

President Obama's support of an International Fuel Bank that would provide a guaranteed supply of uranium at below-market prices undercuts the first of these rationales. As noted above, the President's revival of the strategic arms reductions process will begin to take the second argument away. If the Senate ratifies the CTBT, the argument evaporates further still. It seems that only time and renewed leadership on the world stage will help redress the lack of trust reflected in the last rationale.

Adopting a Policy of No First Use

There is another initiative that many experts advocate, but that the Obama Administration has not embraced. It is the option of adopting and announcing to the world what is known as a "no first use" declaratory policy (the United States has never had such a policy). Declaratory policy is critically important; it effects procurement decisions, the alert procedures of our nuclear forces, and even our operational plans themselves. Equally important, it affects the analogous nuclear policies of other nations.

The declaration of a no first use policy would notify the nations of the world that the United States would only use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear weapon attack upon it. Currently, U.S. policy is much broader and deliberately ambiguous; under it the United States reserves a right to respond with overwhelming force to the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against the United States, its people, its military forces, and U.S. friends and allies. The inclusion of chemical and biological weapons within the category of WMD means that the United States could use nuclear weapons to respond to a chemical or biological attack. Experts see a number of problems with such a policy, the foremost of which is that it seems to underscore the centrality of nuclear weapons in responding to attacks against which our advanced conventional capabilities would be more than sufficient for responding. In doing so, the United States sends a signal to other nations about what it believes to be legitimate potential uses of nuclear weapons. In short, many experts believe that current U.S. declaratory policy works at cross purposes with international anti-nuclear norms and non-proliferation efforts which are very much in the interests of the United States.

Advocates of no first use maintain that the U.S. adoption of a no first use policy would improve global security and stability here and now, not in some distant time by further reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in U.S. security policy, and further underscoring our commitment to our Article VI disarmament pledge. In so doing, a no first use policy would positively influence the nuclear doctrines and postures of other nuclear weapons states and strengthen international nuclear norms against the acquisition, production, and use of nuclear weapons, and thereby, bolster non-proliferation efforts.

At the very least, there would appear to be more than sufficient grounds for the Obama Administration to undertake a careful net assessment of the costs and benefits of adopting a no first use declaratory policy. The Administration's Nuclear Posture Review, now underway in the Pentagon, provides an ideal setting for such an analysis.

Concluding Observations

In embracing the vision of nuclear abolition, President Obama has given new status and stature to an enterprise that has existed since the dawn of the nuclear age. He has set out an extremely ambitious agenda that he wants to realize over the next four years. This agenda radically departs from the policies of the Bush Administration. It revives efforts to reduce strategic nuclear weapons, emphatically reaffirming the U.S. commitment to the goal of disarmament as laid out in Article VI of the NPT. The President's initiatives would ban the future testing of nuclear weapons and cut off the production of the fissile materials necessary for the development of nuclear weapons. The initiatives would aid non-proliferation efforts.

By the President's own admission, these initiatives are only the initial, if essential, steps on the road to abolition. Still, as this brief analysis has endeavored to show, successfully concluding the initiatives on the President's near-term agenda promises to be extremely challenging. Our look at the prospects of achieving truly deep strategic arms reductions—reductions beyond what will be achieved in this year's agreement—indicates how difficult it will be to achieve even bilateral agreement and beyond that the necessary multilateral agreement required for even deeper reductions. Similarly, our look at the prospects of achieving U.S. ratification of the CTBT indicates how difficult it will be to gain domestic agreement, before attention turns to the challenge of seeking the necessary international agreement for the treaty's entry into force. Our look at the prospects of successfully negotiating a verifiable FMCT indicates how difficult it will be to gain international agreement when nations continue to face seemingly irresolvable regional security issues and associated desire to protect sensitive national security interests. However, a cautiously more optimistic outlook is justified from our review of the prospects of strengthening the NPT, which underscores the importance of U.S. leadership in attracting international support as reflected in the increased chances for achieving success for the President's three NPT-related objectives at next year's NPT Review Conference stemming from his support for the strategic arms reductions process and CTBT ratification. Finally, our look at the possibility of adopting a no first use declaratory policy reflects yet another policy adoption that the Administration would do well to examine as it promises to contribute both to greater near-term stability and long-run abolition goals. If achieving the President's initiatives is only the beginning of the road, the journey before us promises to be a long one.

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