Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence. Any man who has once proclaimed violence as his method is inevitably forced to take the lie as his principle. — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1970
“This is a manufactured conflict—controlled by the Kremlin; fueled by Russian tanks and heavy weapons; financed at Russian taxpayer’s expense and costing the lives of young Russians whose mothers, wives and children are told not to investigate their deaths too closely if they want to receive benefits.” It is an actual invasion and actual war—not an “internal civil conflict.
As of mid-June 2015, 6,503 Ukrainian civilians, 2,320 Ukrainian military personnel, between 400-500 Russian military personnel, and 298 foreign civilians have been killed in the war, together with over 16,000 wounded. In addition there are 1,325,200 internally displaced persons in Ukraine (9th largest in the world), 5 million in need of humanitarian assistance, and up to 500,000 people with poor or no access to water. 
Hybrid or not, a full-scale reescalation and invasion by Russia this summer are seen as a foregone conclusion by some. Moreover, according to Timothy Snyder:
The Russian campaign against Ukraine in 2014 is startlingly similar to the German campaign against Czechoslovakia in 1938. It features the use of ethnic nationalism, the invention of historical regions that are only taken for granted after violence (‘Sudetenland’ and ‘Novorossiya’), the support of separatists who would never have a chance without foreign backing, and the desire to destroy a European system by destroying a major European state that happens to be more democratic than some of its neighbors.
Other analysts claim Putin will take the classic approach of a knife-fight—slowly bleeding the victim into submission—in fact, as of mid-June 2015 default on privately-held debt is all but inevitable because resources needed for reforms are being used to support the war effort:
Russia is manipulating eastern Ukraine through misdirection, bluff, intelligence operations, and targeted violence.
… the massing of troops and military hardware… raises fears that the escalating conflict may soon involve Russian regulars. Yet despite the telltale signs of Russian involvement such as unmarked vehicles, servicemen without insignia, and weaponry routinely seen in the possession of pro-Russian separatists, this latest buildup does not signal another massive Russian incursion…
Instead, if observed through the wider lens of Russian force projection in Ukraine, this most recent buildup is part of a greater tactic in which the ambiguity of strategic goals, reinforced by occasional kinetic moments, keeps the Ukrainian conflict at a deadly simmer. It also bleeds Ukraine economically…
Russia’s strategy is effective and dangerous. It forces Ukraine’s military planners to overgeneralize past events in an attempt to find patterns to describe real-time development…
In the current environment, Russia seems content with the incremental gains made by separatists. From Russia’s prospective, such gains are easy to maintain whereas large additions of Ukrainian territory might be difficult to hold…
By using a strategy of intentional ambiguity, Russia can amass forces without firing a single shot and still hurt Ukraine while promoting the narrative of a resurgent Russia.
Irrespective of what overt military action Putin finally decides upon, make no mistake regarding his intentions: Ukraine, apart from mythical Russian nationalist claims to Ukraine as a “brother” nation, apart from Ukraine serving as an unwilling buffer against the “decadent West,” apart from greed and envy over Ukraine’s well-educated population and natural resources, apart from his deep insecurity over the collapse of the Soviet Union, apart from considering it a “direct personal affront” that the Maidan “Revolution of Dignity” deposed Moscow’s highly-corrupt puppet Viktor Yanukovych… apart from all this and more, Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal lies beyond destabilizing Ukraine, annexing its territory, and usurping its history, and destroying its national identity.
The Russian Federation, to counter its isolation, practices “strategic relativism” by engaging in reverse asymmetrical warfare to project a strength that is not there. For example, Russia continues to deny the undeniable—the importation of heavy weapons into eastern Ukraine, it trains local partisans to lure Ukrainian forces into cities and hence undermine local support, and Russia generally makes itself out to be the weaker state against a decadent West. The strategic goal is to destroy the Ukrainian state while promulgating the patently false notion that there never was a Ukrainian state.
Why? In support of a larger strategic goal against the European Union: by enticing and supporting European states’ far right political parties to increase centripetal forces aimed at breaking up the European Union. Why? The Russian economy relies much too heavily on the sale of fossil fuels, and the European Union knows this and is strong when they stay aligned on policy. Russia, on the other hand, knows that as individual states, European Union countries are too dependent on Russian hydrocarbons—hence, why the EU as a transnational entity must be weakened or destroyed. The philosophy driving Russian foreign policy is that there are no “real” connections behind Europe—that an American hand is behind the unity of the European Union just as there was an alleged American hand behind the Maidan (paid henchmen of the CIA). Clearly this is not true, but Russia practices a brilliant “enforceability” that makes it appear true through “applied postmodernism” and “politics as marketing” with the goal—for Putin—of breaking up the world order. The chilling thing is how effective are Putin’s attempts to reformulate reality.
There is a clear pattern to suggest Putin is pursuing something much more serious. In the early 1990s, Russia stirred up separatist tensions in Georgia and Moldova—resulting in the pseudo-state Abkhazia, leaving a “frozen conflict” in the Transdniester region between Ukraine and Moldova, and a disordered Ossetia… not to mention the devastating wars in Chechnya and Ingushetia. In 2007 Russia suspended observance of the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. The more recent invasions of Georgia in August 2008 and Ukraine in March 2014 marked the end of a long internal debate over security policy in Russia, which to NATO’s top military commander, US Air Force General Philip M. Breedlove, reflected a shift in the Russian Federation’s relationship with the West from one of “strategic cooperation” to “strategic competition”. Multiple Russian violations of foreign airspaces by military aircraft and bullying tactics by navy vessels are only one manifestation of this shift.
As noted previously, Putin’s larger goals are to effectively destroy NATO by splintering it, to destroy the EU and return Europe to an age of nation states, to fundamentally change the security structure of the post-Cold War world, and to embarrass the United States. Surprisingly, few seem to recall the classical lesson from history: aggressor states do not invade countries stronger or on par with their own—rather, they invade those who are weaker. Yet…
Russia began a war in Ukraine for no reason that anyone is now capable of defining, and thereby began an alienation from the West that, from the point of view of Russia’s basic interests, makes absolutely no sense. The tortured and fruitless search for a strategic justification for this disaster has led to the jettisoning of one of the basic moral foundations of postwar politics: the opposition to wars of aggression in Europe in general and the Nazi war of aggression in 1939 in particular. The rehabilitation [by Putin] of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is not the reflection of a clear ideology, but it may be something worse: an embrace of nihilism as a defense of incompetence. To embrace the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is to discard the basis for common understanding in the western world for the sake of a momentary tactic that can destroy but cannot create.
Notwithstanding the speculative nature of counterfactual historiography (conjecturing on what did not happen, or what might have happened, in order to understand what did happen), there is a strong argument to be made that had Ukraine not given up its nuclear weapons and had not permitted corruption to have ruined its economy, Putin would not have invaded. But even this argument appears to miss the “larger picture” which, ironically, Putin seems to understand better than his western counterparts who are blinded by their own alleged superiority—seen, for example, in Barak Obama’s tired, old snipes at adversaries as being “on the wrong side of history”. Perhaps not so surprising given his worldview, is that Obama believes he can correctly read the tea leaves of history—which is really a central tenant of Marxist philosophy and later Soviet historiography.
The EU and NATO are indeed both weak and divided. Why? (1) Many western countries dependent on Russia for petroleum supplies. (2) Conditions in most (if not all) western countries exist which Moscow exploits to strengthen the Russian Federation with respect to the West. But this is not the full account. While true that Putin is attempting to weaken Europe by attempting to pit countries against each other, the nuance is that Europe is indeed weakening and structurally splintering not of Putin’s making but of its own: Europe’s people are increasingly distrustful of the political leadership in Germany and in Europe at large… Cyprus, the British elections, Germany trying to be a leader yet hamstrung with WWI psychological baggage, Scotland, Greece, Hungary, the rise in anti-Semitism and the far-right making steady gains. It is therefore not surprising that Putin is taking advantage of Europe’s serious internal problems to disrupt the unity of sanctions—that is, to strengthen Russia. As Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, correctly noted “The problem is not that democracy is in decline. The problem is that the democratic West is in crisis. It has lost the will to affirm and defend democratic values.”
And, it seems to be working: not only is the current unity to continue sanctions against Russia strained at best, consider only one example of inconsistency betraying European fear and incompetence: Europe has given $260 billion in bail-out funds to anti-European and economically disordered Greece, yet balks at giving pro-European, reform-minded Ukraine $65 billion. (Ukraine is 4.6 times the size of Greece and 4.1 times the population.) Applying counterfactual reasoning again, if Europe was not facing its own centripetal problems and was strong and unified, Putin would likely have little impact.
And, while a “softer” form of his hybrid-war, Putin is taking advantage of the West’s weaknesses in a loathsome (yet quite effective) way that would make Saddam Hussein’s former Information Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahha, blush. Through unremitting deception, not only in official Russian government pronouncements but at unprecedented levels in all forms of social media, it is in fact the media itself that has become a target. By aggressively winning “hearts and minds” through RT Russia (television), Twitter feeds, Facebook postings, and a veritable army of trolls attacking any position or argument that dares to counter Putin’s propaganda. Boris Nemtsov, whose assassination many believe was ordered by Putin, stated directly—hours before his death—that Putin “is a pathological liar.” This means one man’s authoritarian insecurities are driving a national machine of propaganda in the service of war.
While penetration of the Internet into the Russian population is exploding—passing the 50% in 2012 and predicted to reach 65% by the end of 2015, the most effective form of propaganda is traditional Russian television:
Televised Russian propaganda has been remarkably effective in focusing the country’s attention on Ukraine and influencing the public opinion. Before anti-government protests began to heat up in Kyiv in late 2013, Ukraine could not have been further from the thoughts of the average Russian. Then, in a few short months, Russia’s state-controlled channels managed to turn Ukraine into a mortal enemy and to portray its legitimately elected government as some kind of military junta grabbing power in a coup and drowning the country in blood. In the process, Russian viewers have been indoctrinated with a picture of the world that has nothing to do with reality. On Russian TV, the West in general and the United States in particular are portrayed as inherently and deeply russo-phobic, starting a proxy war in Ukraine because they fear Russia’s economic, political, military and moral resurgence. In a country that has poked fun at every one of its buffoonish leaders since the death of Josef Stalin, Vladimir Putin, a minor KGB thug, has been transformed by propaganda into a respected and feared national leader standing tall against unprovoked American aggression.
Never mind that there has been no sign of Russia’s supposed resurgence. Nor does it matter Putin and his buddies have so far succeeded only in stealing and misappropriating Russia’s national assets and systematically weakening the Russian economy. Propaganda rules.
At least partly because of Putin’s grandiose deceptions, it is not surprising that western “realist” arguments are generally flawed—proposed by those largely opposed to western support for Ukraine or those, like Stephen Cohen and Paul Craig Roberts, who promote Putin’s mother-of-all-lies: blaming Ukraine for a fascist coup d’état which prompted the current situation. And, for good ideological measure and marketing traction, they ape Putin in blaming the CIA and NATO for allegedly instigating the Maidan with the further goal of inciting a color revolution in Russia itself. (But, if the West is weak—as Putin contends—how can it threaten Russia?) Mark Adomanis reminds us in stark terms of what the situation is and how perilous wishful thinking can be—wishful thinking that left the west woefully unprepared for Putin:
Despite clearly being the bad actor, despite invading its neighbor and then sparking a bloody guerilla war, Russia has suffered much, much less than Ukraine. That’s not fair, it’s not just, and it’s not praiseworthy, but that’s just the way things are.
It’s important to look at the world the way it is, not the way we want it to be. We might want Russia’s economy to collapse in order to pay for the sins of its leaders and we might want Ukraine to blossom and flourish to reward the “European choice” of its people, but neither is going to happen. The international economy is a brutal and unsentimental thing, and we forget that at our, and everyone else’s, peril.
With the annexation of the Crimean peninsula on 18 March 2014 (not to speak of the on-going invasion of eastern Ukraine by thousands of Russian forces and heavy military equipment supporting pro-Russian separatists), Russia is undeniably in violation of international law—in particular of its commitments to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum which obligated signatory states to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine,” “refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine” for Ukraine giving up the (then) third largest nuclear weapons arsenal in the world.
What many forget is the more significant 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which this year turns 40 and which formed part of the reference to the Budapest Memorandum, is in tatters: it set out the fundamental principles of sovereignty and the inviolability of international borders. From Putin’s perspective, the end of the Cold War meant that the Act could not perpetuate Cold War spheres of influence. In fact, with former Warsaw Bloc countries joining the European Union and NATA, the West’s “sphere of influence” expanded peacefully to the east. Apart from obvious economic threats from successful countries to Putin’s semi-feudal and highly-corrupt oligarchical regime, the peaceful expansion of the West’s sphere of influence potentially to the border of the Russian Federation is what fuels Putin’s paranoia: he will not tolerate successful neighbors.
To understand how important Ukraine is in regard to western Europe, one need only follow the money—energy money: As a means for weakening Europe, Russia will pursue economic and political control over Ukraine by enmeshing its oligarchical elites in a complex web of state-sponsored corruption that will only perpetuate its energy dependence. The most effective foreign policy weapon Russia yields are fossil fuels—primarily oil and gas, which pass through Ukraine to Southern, Eastern, and Central Europe—tying both almost inextricably together. Moreover Ukraine’s nuclear power industry, which generates roughly fifty percent of all of electricity and whose reactor units are Russian designed, is currently held hostage to the sole supplier of nuclear fuel—Russia.
So, Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the myth of Novorossia—while hiding behind claim of “historical injustices”—is really about reasserting Russia’s position what it considers to be its own backyard. In other words, Putin’s military invasion of Ukraine is about containing Europe’s successes and hence influences… even as he believes western Europe’s internal weakness will be its eventual undoing, as noted above. What drives the success of Europe and why does Putin fear this? Because, for a country to accede to EU, required of it will be the adoption of EU standards regarding democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights, and both economic competition and transparency—the last thing Putin needs in terms of losing his Tsarist grip over oligarchs bankrolling his power and Russian nationalists supporting him. So, Putin sees Europe in direct competition with his personal vision of Russia’s future—a competition that, unfortunately because of Russia’s overt violations of international agreements, is animated by distrust… which can be very dangerous.
But there’s more. More than a year ago I warned that if Russia was not held accountable for its violations, all international agreements and conventions would likely come under threat. With regard to Russia itself, the unzippering has already begun: in March Russia announced it is pulling out of the very important post-Cold War Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, signed in 1990 between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. This treaty set caps on the number of soldiers, tanks, artillery pieces and other non-nuclear military assets that could be stationed in Europe. On the heels of this, a Russian general suggested that his country has the right to move nuclear weapons into the occupied Crimean peninsula, calling into question the status of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Force Treaty signed between the United States and the (former) Soviet Union—designed to eliminate the two countries’ stocks of nuclear and ballistic missiles with ranges of between 300 and 3,400 miles.
Of particular concern is the failure of the Obama Administration to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. Why should Iran accede to any agreement if they are seemingly easily ignored or violated with no effective repercussions—as in the case of Russia? To be fair, Russia’s hand in this issue is far from constructive—using the situation to deflect attention away from its meddling in the “near abroad”:
Russia has no interest in seeing a nuclear-armed Iran in the neighborhood, but the mere threat of an unshackled Iranian nuclear program and a hostile relationship between Washington and Tehran provided just the level of distraction Moscow needed to keep the United States from committing serious attention to Russia’s former Soviet sphere.
Perhaps worse from the perspective of our own security is the seeming inability of the U.S. President to understand that the continued chipping away of Ukraine’s territory threatens U.S. security: if confidence in international agreements intended to protect the territorial integrity of countries (which arose from the terrible experience of World War II) is waning, and with Russia repeatedly violating—even now—sea and air spaces of NATO countries, is not the very order and stability of the world at risk? How can Ukraine (or NATO members, for that matter) expect much more than words of “gravely concerned” and inefficacious “red lines” regarding its territorial integrity when Obama cannot (or will not) defend U.S. borders from illegal aliens? Is it beyond the pale to suggest that, as Putin’s primary intention is to cynically reconstitute the international order and make Russia strong, that Obama desires the same thing (in playing along with Putin’s aspirations) but by weakening the U.S.—based on, among other things, his distaste for projecting U.S. power and his desire to punish ghosts of colonialism?
1 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, from Solzhenitsyn’s notes for the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature (not delivered) quoted in Solzhenitsyn: A Documentary Record (1974) edited by Leopold Labedz, WikiQuote, 08 March 2015.
2 Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, “Ukraine Under Siege”, Testimony on Ukraine Before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Washington, DC, 04 March 2015. See also Kalyan Kumar, “Russia Using Own Military Resources to Sustain Ukraine Conflict, Says UK Think Tank”, International Business Times, 12 March 2015.
3 “Seven Reasons the Conflict in Ukraine is Actually a Russian Invasion”, EuroMaidan Press, 06 May 2015.
5Rebekah Kates Lemke and Nikki Gamer “Ukraine’s Unseen Crisis: Mass Civilian Displacement”, Catholic Relief Services, 29 June 2015. “Five Things You Need to Know About the Crisis in Ukraine”, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 29 June 2015.
8 Ben Aris, “Ukraine’s Default Ducks Are All in A Row: Everything is Ready in Kyiv for Ukraine to Default on Its Privately-Held Debt”, Business New Europe, 30 June 2015.
9 Ruben Gzirian, “Russia’s Buildup Along Ukraine’s Border Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does”, New Atlanticist, 11 June 2015.
10 The first reference to a settlement called Moscow appears in ancient Rus’ chronicles around the year 1147, i.e., 159 years after the medieval (and quite advanced) trading pro-state known as Kyivan-Rus’ accepted Byzantine Christianity as the state religion. (Likely, the area was settled several hundred years earlier.) In any event, Moscow’s pretenses to Ukraine’s territory, history, and spiritual legacy are like an angry U.S. claiming London because it arose largely from English settlers of the New World. Even by Soviet historiography, the 1500th anniversary of the founding of Kyiv was celebrated in 1982—formally implying Kyiv is approximately 665 years older than Moscow.
11 Bill Keller, “Russia vs. Europe”, New York Times, 15 December 2013.
12 Andrew Osborne, “Putin: Collapse of the Soviet Union was ‘catastrophe of the century’”, The Independent (UK), 15 December 2013.
14 This is why Russian “anti-fascism” rhetoric is particularly insidious. While Putin and most Russians are every-ready to opine about the “brotherly Ukrainian people,” (note: “brotherly” but not “equal”), they deny the legitimacy of an independent Ukrainian state and the right of Ukrainians to decide their own geopolitical future. In the Russian imagination, modern “Ukrainian fascists” are those who insist on a separate Ukrainian identity and want their country to become part of the West.
17 Ashish Kumar Sen, “Don’t Fall for Putin’s Game, Warn European Officials”, The New Atlanticist, 12 June 2015.
18 Justin Huggler, “Putin wants to destroy NATO, ‘not by attacking it but by splintering it,’ says head of U.S. forces in Europe,”, The Telegraph, 04 March 2015; Stephen Szabo, “Divide and Conquer: Russian President Vladimir Putin would love to shatter German-American unity”, Time, 05 March 2015; Vladimir Socor, “Russia’s Master Plan to Break the Trans-Atlantic Alliance: Putin is using negotiations about the future of Ukraine to gain a voice in decision-making for all of Europe”, Wall Street Journal, 20 April 2015.
19 Snyder, op. cit.
20 This is not to suggest that Ukraine should seek nuclear weapons for its defense, even though this idea has some populist traction in the country. Under separate cover I’ve argued strongly against this: Alexander R. Sich, “Ukraine Needs NATO, Not Nukes”, National Review Online, 21 March 2014.
22 Max Fisher, “Why One of Russia’s Top Foreign Policy Experts is Worried About a Major War with Europe”, VOX, 06 May 2015.
24 Paul Roderick Gregory, “Europe Gives $260 Billion for Anti-EU Greece but Balks at $65 Billion for Pro-Europe Ukraine”, Forbes, 05 May 2015.
26 Gideon Rachman, “Vladimir Putin’s Survival Strategy is Lies and Violence”, Financial Times, 02 March 2015; Editorial, “Putin’s Big Lie”, Kyiv Post, 19 March 2015; Natasha Bertrand, “Russian Internet Trolls Are Trained to Spread Propaganda in Three-Person Teams”, Business Insider, 31 March 2015; Shaun Walker, “Salutin’ Putin: Inside a Russian Troll House”, The Guardian, 02 April 2015 (); Adrian Karatnycky, “Vladimir Putin’s Secrets and Lies”, Newsweek, 15 April 2015; Julian Reichelt, “Putin’s War on Truth: Diplomatic Words of Good Faith Are the Most Dangerous Form of Propaganda”, Politico, 27 April 2015; Dmitry Volchek and Daisy Sindelar, “One Professional Russian Troll Tells All”, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, 06 May 2015; “Vladimir Putin’s Global Orwellian Campaign to Undermine the West”, The Week, 09 May 2015.
31 Alexander J. Motyl, “Five Fatal Flaws in Realist Analysis of Russia and Ukraine”, Washington Post, 03 March 2015; Alexander J. Motyl, “The Surrealism of Realism: Misreading the War in Ukraine”, World Affairs, January/February 2015. Alexander J. Motyl, “The Myth of the West’s Threat to Russia”, Real Clear Defense, 05 March 2015; Anne Applebaum, “The Myth of Russian Humiliation”, Washington Post, 17 October 2015; Mariana Budjeryn, “The Reality and Myth of Ukrainian Neutrality”, World Affairs, March/April 2014.
32 Alexander J. Motyl, “Is Putin’s Russia Fascist?”, New Atlanticist, 23 April 2015. Motyl makes an excellent point: “No one would say that America is not democratic because the origins of American democracy lay in revolution and not, as with Britain, in historical evolution.” See also Alexander Motyl, “Is Ukraine Fascist?” Huffington Post, 03 February 2015.
33 Cathy Young, “Putin’s Pal”, Slate, 24 July 2014; Paul Craig Roberts, “It Is Time to Call Radio ‘Liberty’ What It Is: Radio Gestapo Amerika”, 06 May 2015; Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber, “Putin sounds the alarm over budding ‘Color Revolutions’ in Russia”, The Moscow Times, 04 March 2015; Andrew Higgins and Andrew E. Kramer, “Ukraine leader was defeated even before he was ousted”, New York Times, January 3, 2015.
34 Mark Adomanis, “Ukraine’s Economy is Dead,” Russia!, 04 March 2015.
35 Justin Huggler, “Putin Wants to Destroy NATO, Says US General Ben Hodges”, The Atlantic Council, NatoSource, 04 March 2015; Matthew Schofield “After Year of Conflict, Ukrainians Believe They’re Fighting for Survival”, McClatchyDC, 27 February 2015; “‘Thousands’ of Russian troops in east Ukraine: US envoy”, Yahoo!News, 04 March 2015.
36 The Helsinki Final Act established the rules of engagement between the West and the then Soviet Union. Covering three major areas—security, economic cooperation, and human rights—this document eventually led to the formation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
37 Alexander R. Sich, “With Ukrainian Politicians Considering Proliferation, Blame the Weak West”, National Review Online, 21 March 2014.
39 Editorial, “Iran on the Nuclear Edge: Official Leaks Suggest the U.S. is Making Ever More Concessions”, Wall Street Journal, 27 February 2015; Paul Goble, “The New Face of Appeasement”, Window on Eurasia, 10 March 2015; Eric Edelman and Tzvi Kahn, “Will We Let Iran, Like Russia, Violate Its Nuclear Pact?” Politico Magazine, 13 April 2015.
41 Ralph Peters, “Why Our Prep-school Diplomats Fail Against Putin and ISIS”, New York Post, 15 March 2015; Melinda Haring, “The West’s Strategy Toward Putin Promises Conflict and Increases Danger of Wider War”, The Atlantic Council, 29 April 2015.
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