State of the Union

Marco Rubio’s Absurd Foreign Policy

Though Barack Obama is widely regarded as a weak president, is the new world disorder really all his fault?

Listening to the more vocal voices of the GOP one might think so.

According to Sen. Lindsey Graham, Vladimir Putin’s move into Crimea “started with Benghazi.” ”When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression,” said Graham. Putin “came to the conclusion after Benghazi, Syria, Egypt” that Barack Obama is “a weak indecisive leader.”

Also blaming Obama for Crimea, John McCain got cheers at AIPAC by charging, “This is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.” This “blatant act” of aggression “cannot stand,” said McCain. How McCain plans to force Putin to cough up Crimea was left unexplained.

Now Marco Rubio seems to be auditioning to replace the retired Joe Lieberman as third amigo. His CPAC speech is described by the L.A. Times:

[Rubio] said that China is threatening to take parts of the South China Sea … a nuclear North Korea is testing missiles, Venezuela is slaughtering protesters, and Cuba remains an oppressive dictatorship. He added that Iran continues to pursue nuclear weapons and regional hegemony and Russia is attempting to ‘reconstitute’ the former Soviet Union.

What all these countries have in common, said Rubio, is “totalitarian governments.” Rubio proposes a U.S. foreign policy of leading the world to “stand up to the spread of totalitarianism.”

Not quite as ambitious as George W. Bush’s “ending tyranny in our world,” but it will do.

Where to begin. Read More…

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Military Power Is Not a Foreign Policy Panacea

Photo: U.S. Army

A recent article by Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations serves to illustrate how some elite thinkers in the United States have come to view the application of deadly force as a cure-all for a wide range of foreign policy challenges. In the February 10 edition of the Financial Times, he wrote that it was the U.S. failure to “arm and train the Free Syrian Army” that allowed the Syrian regime to stay in power. To counter perceived American inaction, he recommended solutions ranging from “doing more to arm the moderate opposition, to declaring a no-fly zone. Drones could strike al-Qaeda operatives in Syria; air power could create humanitarian zones near the Turkish and Jordanian borders.” While Mr. Boot castigates the White House for “inaction,” he does not bother to address the most critical question: what happens after these steps are taken?

For example, he argued we should train and arm “the Free Syrian Army.” Yet as has been widely reported, this so-called ‘army’ is a fractious, incongruous alignment of disparate groups, many of whose goals are antithetical to American interests and who often fight among themselves as often as against regime forces. Moreover, he does not address how these individual actions fit into a comprehensive strategy. How does he imagine the U.S. will identify al-Qaeda operatives within Syria for drone strikes? What end would these drone strikes seek to achieve? Kill “some” of the leaders? 10 percent? 50 percent? What would be the strategic utility of such a course of action? Given that nearly unfettered drone strikes have proven inconsequential in Pakistan and Yemen, how will sporadic strikes in Syria change the tactical balance?

Perhaps most importantly, advocates of military action frequently fail to consider this possibility: what sort of Syria would exist if their suggested military actions succeeded and the current Syrian regime did fall? What would be the likelihood that the grudging cooperation currently at play between radical and moderate Islamic groups on the rebel side would erupt into open warfare in the struggle for control of a post-Assad Syria? What would the United States do if an al-Qaeda affiliated coalition gained control of the Syrian state? These are hardly hypothetical possibilities.

Yet the default position by opinion leaders like Mr. Boot is to use military power first, and worry about the consequences later; the effects suffered by the men and women who live in the target country seem to get little consideration. Read More…

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The Real German Warning for Cold War II

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

In assessing the motives and actions of Vladimir Putin, Hillary Clinton compared them to Adolf Hitler’s. Almost always a mistake. After 12 years in power, Hitler was dead, having slaughtered millions and conquered Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals. And Putin? After 13 years in power, and facing a crisis in Ukraine, he directed his soldiers in the Crimea to take control of the small peninsula where Russia has berthed its Black Sea fleet since Napoleon. To the Wall Street Journal this is a “blitzkrieg.”

But as of now, this is a less bloody affair than Andrew Jackson’s acquisition of our Florida peninsula. In 1818, Gen. Jackson was shooting Indians, putting the Spanish on boats to Cuba and hanging Brits. And we Americans loved it.

Still, there are parallels between what motivates Putin, a Russian nationalist, and what motivated the Austrian corporal. Hitler’s war began in blazing resentment at what was done to Germany after Nov. 11, 1918. The Kaiser’s armies had defeated the Russian Empire, and the Italians at Caporetto, and fought the Western Allies to a stand still in France, until two million Americans turned the tide in 1918. When Berlin accepted an armistice on President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, not a single Allied soldier stood on German soil.

But, at Paris, the Allies proceeded to tear a disarmed Germany apart. The whole German Empire was confiscated. Eupen and Malmedy were carved out of Germany and given to Belgium. Alsace-Lorraine was taken by France. South Tyrol was severed from Austria and given to Italy. A new Czechoslovakia was given custody of 3.25 million Sudeten Germans. The German port of Danzig was handed over to the new Poland, which was also given an 80-mile wide strip cut out of Germany from Silesia to the sea, slicing her in two. The Germans were told they could not form an economic union with Austria, could not have an army of more than 100,000 soldiers, and could not put soldiers west of the Rhine, in their own country. Perhaps this Carthaginian peace was understandable given the Allied losses. It was also madness if the Allies wanted an enduring peace.  Read More…

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Our Entirely Self-Inflicted Ukraine Disaster

Victoria Nuland swearing in ceremony as Assistant Secretary of State. Photo courtesy State Department
Victoria Nuland swearing in ceremony as Assistant Secretary of State. Photo courtesy State Department

It must have been nearly 26 years ago, in the spring. On a Saturday, I was playing golf with my new boss, Owen Harries, editor of The National Interest. We were puzzling over Gorbachev, who was sounding and acting so damned reasonable. “It’s just counterintuitive” said Owen, and I of course concurred. Gorbachev’s behavior seemed to contravene everything I had learned in my fifteen or so years of reading intensely about Soviet communism, and Owen’s education was of course deeper still. That long bibliography, passionately devoured and fervently embraced: Adam Ulam, Medvedev, Orwell, Koestler, Raymond Aron, Solzhenitsyn, Nadezdha Mandelstam, dozens of articles in Commentary, Encounter, National Review-–all soon to be shifted to my mind’s attic. My Columbia University dissertation devoted to some minor but fascinating corner of the cultural Cold War, suddenly as timely as if it concerned the War of the Roses. I had come to The National Interest (then published by Irving Kristol) in no small part to fight communism, and now what was I going to do?

And yet of course, one couldn’t deny what a blessing it was. Suddenly the United Nations could get things done; we weren’t going to have an accidental civilization ending war; and Russia (Tolstoy, vodka, etc) could be appreciated without being some sort of dupe. On the first day the subway opened after 9/11, I overheard a young pretty blonde woman, Russian accent, flirting with her American beau as they stood in line to buy farecards. “So, ve are now going to be allies.” Poignant and delicious. And yet sad were the Yeltsin years: Russia seeming to disintegrate into alchoholism, falling birthrates, a great civilization, a core part of everyone’s mental architecture of the world, coming apart at the seams.

Looking around the American media in the past few days, I realize I am not very much in step with my countrymen. Stephen Cohen makes some sensible points about Putin’s obligations to Russia on PBS, saying basically, look Putin is not entirely the bad guy here, and no one should be trying to push Western institutions right up to Russia’s borders, and any responsible leader would have acted similarly , and the reaction–look at the comments!– is a kind of full-blown of rage. What drives it? Or more precisely, what is the motivation to try to drive the sphere of Western influence right up to Russia’s borders? Is it because our ambitions (and whose, exactly?) are insatiable? Because that seems to be it: we aren’t satisfied with the liberation of the satellites of Eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, former Cold War flashpoints and now NATO members; with the reunification of Germany and under Western auspices, so that Berlin is now a virtual capital of Nato; with the Baltic states as NATO members too. There seemed to be no end to it. We have learned from Robert Gates’s memoirs that at the time, Dick Cheney was advocating not only for the dismantlement of the Soviet empire (accomplished) but of Russia itself. Cheney then lacked the power to try carry this out, but what would have been the plan if he had? Read More…

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Kunming Knife Attacks Point to Prolonged Ethnic Conflict

Chaos erupted on Saturday afternoon at a Kunming railway station, in the Yunnan province of southwestern China. Ten men and women carrying scimitars and meat cleavers descended on unsuspecting passengers, slicing and stabbing at random. Unreleased photos depict multiple victims lying in pools of their own blood. All told, 130 people were injured and 30 were killed. Four suspects were shot and killed at the scene; one is currently detained while recovering from injuries. It is believed that there are currently five suspects are still at large. There was a heightened security presence at both the Kunming railway station and in Beijing on Monday. President Xi Jinping harshly condemned these acts, which have been classified as acts of terrorism. A vigil was held on Sunday to honor the dead and wounded.

The attack was linked to Uighur separatists, who hail from the Xinjiang province in northwest China, directly north of Tibet. Tensions have flared between the Han Chinese and the Turkic Muslim ethnic groups in the region for the last several years, each conflict bringing severe government crackdowns. Because of tight restrictions on reporting, there is speculation as to whether the government has exaggerated the Uighur terrorism in order to justify the use of violence. But there does seem to be legitimate unrest that is swept under the rug.

As recently as last October, Uighur separatists claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Tiananmen Square. The square represents both the heart of Chinese power and dissidence—25 years ago the square was the site of mass student demonstrations advocating for democracy. A photo of the suicide bombing features a single pillar of smoke stretching in front of Tiananmen tower, where the portrait of Mao Zedong looks impassively on. It is not yet known if one or several groups carry out these acts of violence, or if these groups coordinate their efforts.

The Xinjiang region consists of 45 percent Uighurs, most of whom are Muslim, and 40 percent Han Chinese. The Han Chinese are the dominant ethnic group in China, making up 94 percent of the population. As China’s population rises, the Chinese government has facilitated moving some of the Han population further West, to the consternation of the local Uighur population.  The inhabitants of Xinjiang, a part of China heretofore known as an “autonomous region” consider the resettlement both a political and cultural imposition, and fear the loss of their culture by an ethnic hegemon.

Reports of armed attacks from Xinjiang began in 2008, when a woman detonated a bomb in protest of a prominent local businessman who died while in police custody. In 2009, multiple reports emerged of stabbings via hypodermic needles. Protesters took to the streets to display their disapproval with the ensuing investigation. Three years ago, 18 men took over a police station, shouting religious slogans and taking several hostages with knives and bombs. Fourteen of them were killed in a police confrontation.

The inherent opaqueness of such unrest is either incomplete or partially confirmed. In the midst of all the incomplete information, one fact remains clear: the unrest is no longer contained to a remote corner of China. The people responsible for committing this violence have brought the battle to the front and center of Chinese—and international—politics.

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Resist the War Party on Crimea

Lilyana Vynogradova /

With Vladimir Putin’s dispatch of Russian troops into Crimea, our war hawks are breathing fire. Russophobia is rampant and the op-ed pages are ablaze here. Barack Obama should tune them out, and reflect on how Cold War presidents dealt with far graver clashes with Moscow.

When Red Army tank divisions crushed the Hungarian freedom fighters in 1956, killing 50,000, Eisenhower did not lift a finger. When Khrushchev built the Berlin Wall, JFK went to Berlin and gave a speech. When Warsaw Pact troops crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, LBJ did nothing. When, Moscow ordered Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski to smash Solidarity, Ronald Reagan refused to put Warsaw in default. These presidents saw no vital U.S. interest imperiled in these Soviet actions, however brutal. They sensed that time was on our side in the Cold War. And history has proven them right.

What is the U.S. vital interest in Crimea? Zero. From Catherine the Great to Khrushchev, the peninsula belonged to Russia. The people of Crimea are 60 percent ethnic Russians. And should Crimea vote to secede from Ukraine, upon what moral ground would we stand to deny them the right, when we bombed Serbia for 78 days to bring about the secession of Kosovo? Across Europe, nations have been breaking apart since the end of the Cold War. Out of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia came 24 nations. Scotland is voting on secession this year. Catalonia may be next.

Yet, today, we have the Wall Street Journal describing Russia’s sending of soldiers to occupy airfields in Ukraine as a “blitzkrieg” that “brings the threat of war to the heart of Europe,” though Crimea is east even of what we used to call Eastern Europe. The Journal wants the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush sent to the Eastern Mediterranean and warships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet sent into the Black Sea. But why? We have no alliance that mandates our fighting Russia over Crimea. We have no vital interest there. Why send a flotilla other than to act tough, escalate the crisis and risk a clash? Read More…

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North Korea: “More to Be Pitied Than Feared”

North Korea’s atrocities were thrown back into the public discourse last week, after a new report by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights stirred up international outcry. The report details the extent of human rights violations currently known in the country—crimes including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

In sum, the commission says, North Korea’s crimes against humanity do not “have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

The report’s release came hand-in-hand with a Gallup poll’s revelation that Americans hate North Korea more than any other country in the world. Though Kim Jong-Un is often portrayed in a childish and almost teasing manner by American media, many are realizing this seeming childishness lends itself to an extremely brutal dictatorship.

Yet figuring out the best response to the North Korean situation is a troubling question—one without a clear or compelling answer, as of yet. For the U.S., as a South Korean (Republic of Korea, or ROK) ally, diplomacy will be tricky in days to come.

North Korea’s government could hardly be more restrictive, isolated, or ruthless. Any autonomous religious activity in the country is “now almost nonexistent; government-sponsored religious groups exist to provide an illusion of religion freedom,” says the CIA. The country’s prison camps have been compared to Nazi concentration camps: according to multiple firsthand reports from defectors, prisoners are subjected to executions, starvation, and extreme torture. In a Wednesday Telegraph piece, former prison guard Ahn Myong-Chol said “more than 90 percent” of prisoners he talked to said they had no idea why they were in the camp.

“People in the camps are not treated as human beings… They are like flies that can be crushed,” Ahn told the newspaper.

National Geographic wrote a piece about the perils facing North Korean refugees in 2009. Those who cross the border without permission may be thrown into a prison labor camp for three to five years. Conspiring to reach South Korea “is considered treason, with offenders starved, tortured, and sometimes publicly executed.” Yet China refuses to honor international agreements to treat North Koreans as refugees, maintaining instead “the defectors are illegal ‘economic migrants.’” The UN’s report has already prompted some pushback from China, according to The Telegraph:

The UN panel has warned China’s government that it might be “aiding and abetting crimes against humanity” by sending migrants and defectors back to North Korea to face torture and execution. It said that Beijing had in some cases forwarded to Pyongyang “information about the contacts and conduct” of North Korean nationals, despite knowing that they would almost certainly face torture if repatriated. China has hinted that it will use its UN security council veto to prevent the International Criminal Court indicting Kim Jong-un. However, a separate ad hoc tribunal could be convened.

Additionally, the country is experiencing rampant economic disrepair. The CIA shares some of the country’s chronic problems: industrial capital stock is “nearly beyond repair,” military spending has cut off needed resources for civilians, there are chronic food shortages due to weather and collective farming practices (amongst other systemic issues), and “industrial and power output have stagnated for years at a fraction of pre-1990 levels.”

The country’s situation is incredibly tenuous—indeed, the RAND Corporation released a report last year claiming that North Korea is a “failing state. Its government could collapse in the coming months or years, causing an immense humanitarian disaster and potentially other, even more serious consequences.” Looking at a map quickly reveals why such a collapse could have major repercussions. North Korea separates South Korea from the rest of the continent. While ROK has a strong economy at present, the dissolution of North Korea would have a variety of consequences—economic and cultural, as well as political—for its southern neighbor. Read More…

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Cyberattacks on Syria Put the Homefront in Danger

NSA Headquarters Trevor Paglen / cc
NSA Headquarters Trevor Paglen / cc

The United States has struggled to find a way to support Syrian rebels without putting American lives at risk, and President Barack Obama has repeatedly rejected proposals to shift from arms dealing to cyberwar. He’s making a prudent choice.

Instead of targeting enemy soldiers, cyberwar targets enemy infrastructure. Just as your own computer can be damaged by being infected with a virus, enemy computers can be compromised with targeted malicious software, but, instead of stealing your credit card number or wiping your hard drive,  these attacks can steal battle plans and disable or even destroy weapons systems and infrastructure.

Cyberwar is a tempting option, since it keeps our boots off the ground and out of enemy airspace. One Pentagon plan would have reportedly grounded President Bashar al-Assad’s missiles, preventing him from launching airstrikes without the inconvenience of setting up a no-fly zone or a shield system.

However, the safety Obama would win for our troops abroad could be outweighed by the danger he’d expose us to on the homefront. The very remove that makes cyberwar tempting makes it more likely that, if this kind of conflict is normalized, battles will spill over into the infrastructure of our daily lives. And that’s a theater of operations we’re ill equipped to defend.

Cyberwar favors the smaller side. Developed countries have the most to lose, responsible as they are for power grids, secure databases, banking systems, etc. A digital insurgency is agile and light, with nothing to protect but its own files. Some struggling countries even have even lucked into their own defenses by lagging behind. According to the New York Times

[Cyberattacks were] considered during the NATO attacks on Libya in the spring of 2011, but dismissed after Mr. Obama’s advisers warned him that there was no assurance they would work against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s antiquated, pre-Internet air defenses.

But this strategy is better suited to self-interested despots like Qaddafi or science fiction like Battlestar Galactica than to a modern nation. The United States will never be in a position to sacrifice prosperity and progress for security through technical regress.

Right now, the United States doesn’t just have weak cyber defenses, but, once a breach occurs, our infrastructure isn’t resilient enough to weather the damage. A recent sniper attack on a California power plant raised concern because our power grid is so delicately balanced that compromising just a few power stations, physically or electronically, would give an attacker the ability to induce a massive blackout, even worse than the one that struck the Northeast in 2003. Read More…

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On Ukraine, Cool the Triumphalism

I don’t recall ever feeling such ambivalence about a major political event. Of course it is impossible to not feel exhilarated at the toppling of a corrupt and mendacious Ukrainian autocrat Victor Yanukovich, his flight to parts unknown with his much younger mistress in tow, impossible not to enjoy the press accounts of Ukrainians free to wander about and ogle his palace—the gold toilet, the imported exotic birds, the private golf course, the ridiculous furniture—this caricature of vulgarity, and given the circumstances which financed it, robbery as well. Of course there is much to admire in the young men and women who both waited it out and fought in Kiev’s Maidan, eventually triumphing when the police were no longer willing to defend the Yanukovich presidency. Most Ukranians—a distinct majority—want to move their country towards Europe; they see, and rightly so, post-communist Poland as a huge success. More naively, they believe that the West is a big candy mountain of capitalist plenty, ready to envelop their country into a cornucopia of prosperity.

Ukraine of course had its anti-Russian revolutions before, only ten years ago in fact. The makers of the Orange Revolution made such a mess of things with infighting and corruption that Yanukovich was legitimately voted into power in 2010. Now he has been ousted by young revolutionaries, but if you are a Russian-speaking Ukranian,—perhaps a third of population—you might well think of the Maidan crowds as street mobs with no legitimacy.

Today I attended a lunch forum, a Ukraine policy debate of sorts, at the Council for the National Interest. Speaking for Russia’s perspective was Andranik Migranyan, a “unofficial” advisor to the Putin government and director of a Russian foundation in New York. Representing the American side was Paula Dobriansky, a former ambassador under George W. Bush who in today’s Times lamented the Obama administration’s “absence of strategic vision, disinterest in democracy promotion, and an unwillingness to lead.”

Dobriansky was essentially using Weekly Standard talking points 101. Trouble is, there really is no more certainty that Ukraine would be any more democratic than Iraq. I suspect, without being prepared to debate the point, that Max Blumenthal is far too broadly negative in his portrayal of the Ukranian revolutionary movement as honeycombed with modern day neo-Nazis. But the fact is that Ukraine, for most of its recent history, has had a frightful political culture: basically the country has served as a hothouse and battleground to most some of the brutal forces in world history—communist and fascist both. The title of Timothy Snyder’s celebrated Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin gives a reasonable impression.

That history by itself would make the triumphant integration of “democratic” Ukraine into Western Europe an unlikely proposition. That would be the case whether Europe abrogated its own membership rules to give Ukraine membership on a fast track or left the country on an indeterminate candidate membership period.

But there’s another problem: much of Ukraine, perhaps a third of it, identifies not with the West, but with Russia. And vice versa. Read More…

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Violent Protests Surge in Venezuela

With the news of the situation in Ukraine dominating the news cycle, less attention is being paid to Venezuela, whose protests have raged on for the last two weeks, steadily gaining momentum and inciting smaller solidarity demonstrations in the U.S. Occasionally referred to by the day of the month in February, for purposes of specificity (for example, 12F, an abbreviated version of the Spanish date 12 de febrero), there have been slightly more than a dozen fatalities, over 200 injuries, and roughly 150 arrests. The protests began peacefully in reaction to the alleged corruption of President Nicholas Maduro’s presidency, but they have since escalated into violent conflict since riot police shot and killed several protesters. The demonstrations are in reaction to Venezuela’s high inflation, rampant crime, scarcity of basic food and medical supplies, and muzzling of free speech. The protesters are calling for Maduro’s resignation and a snap election to replace him. A CNN reporter claimed that he and his fellow journalists had their equipment removed at gunpoint, and over the weekend the Internet was disabled in order to prevent coverage of the events. In spite of the attempts to quash the protest, scores of photographs have been leaked on various social media, depicting both the severity and scale of the protests.

This is largely a student and youth mobilized protest, but many high-profile politicians, military personnel, and high-ranking officials have shown public support. According to a letter written by former defense secretary and political prisoner Ivan Simonovis, the majority of deaths suffered last year were under the age of 30. The young, vivacious former mayor of Chacao, Leopoldo Lopez Mendoza, the leadership of the opposition, turned himself in on Feburary 18th on charges of arson, public disturbance, and inciting violence. In the absence created by Mendoza’s departure, former mayor of the Baruta Municipality Henrique Capriles Radonski has taken up the mantle as the leader of the opposition, and is set to meet with President Maduro on Monday afternoon with other leaders to discuss curtailing the street violence. One of the agenda items to be discussed is the release of Lopez and the handful of other student demonstrators who have since been imprisoned.

In an open letter addressed to Venezuela (translated below), the imprisoned former Minister of Defense Simonovis effectively summarized the motivations of the demonstrations and pledged his full support to the movement:

Leopoldo Lopez interprets the Venezuelan’s discontent manifested in the lack of food, medical supplies, and murder of 25,000 people during 2013 in Venezuela, where the majority of those who perished were under the age of 30. Our security is non-existent, and the young have decided to protest because they have no future, because they see the injustices and want the government takes it upon itself to correcting them.

However ardent his support for the protesters, though, it doesn’t appear that the former minister condones the recent violence; rather, he calls on the government to make the first move to end things peacefully. “The government should understand that the non-violence compromise should come from on both sides, but the first step should be from the side that holding power. Let’s sit down and discuss this.”

It is unlikely that Maduro will capitulate to the protesters’ demands, but the results of the meeting may determine whether or not the violence will ebb or intensify.

Open Letter to Venezuela from Ivan Simonovis

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