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Russia & The Taliban: From Narrative Challenges To Opportunities

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image source: TASS

The Taliban’s lightning-fast takeover of Afghanistan was a “black-swan” event that completely changed the geostrategic situation in Central and South Asia. It also resulted in Russia’s pragmatic ties with the Taliban coming to the forefront of global attention after its officials’ generally positive assessments of the group, which their government still officially designates as terrorists. The Kremlin began intensifying its efforts to promote a peaceful political solution to the Afghan War in February 2019 after hosting the group in Moscow for talks. Since then, it sought to include the Taliban in a proposed transitional government prior to its recent takeover of the country, nowadays hoping for it to function as a regional anti-terrorist force against ISIS-K, which is another terrorist group banned by Russia. Nevertheless, the closeness of their political and security ties has raised some questions about the consequences that this might have on Russia’s reputation abroad.

Before addressing the narrative challenges and opportunities connected to Russia’s new-found ties with the Taliban, it is important to inform the reader of the most prominent statements made by Russian officials about the group in order for them to better understand the country’s evolving policy towards it. President Putin said in late August during a news conference with outgoing German Chancellor Merkel, “The Taliban now controls almost the entire territory of that country, including its capital. This is the reality, and we must proceed from this reality as we strive to avoid the collapse of the Afghan state.” He also expressed hope that the group will keep its word “to guarantee safety for local residents and foreign missions”, the first part of which can also be interpreted as his expectation that it will respect the rights of minorities and women too. As for the second, it is a reflection of Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan Dmitry Zhirnov’s earlier words to that effect.

Ambassador Zhirnov previously revealed that the Russian Embassy in Afghanistan was under the Taliban’s protection and that the group promised that “no one will harm a hair on the heads of Russian diplomats”. He also shared his view that many Afghans’ fears of the Taliban “are groundless” and that they need not flee in panic following its takeover of Kabul. In fact, according to his professional assessment, “Now the situation in Kabul is better than it was under Ashraf Ghani. That is, it is better under the Taliban terrorists than under Ghani.” In addition, Ambassador Zhirnov believes that “Their approach is clear, it is good, positive and business-like.” They are also trying to prevent provocations in Kabul, he said, which then led him to declaring that “They have passed the first test, which concerns their first days in Kabul and Kabul’s security. If they can prove to the people that they guarantee order and social justice, they will pass the second exam.”

Despite these positive assessments, Russian Special Presidential Representative for Afghanistan and Director of the Foreign Ministry’s Second Asian Department Zamir Kabulov said that “We are not in a rush as far as recognition goes. We will wait and watch how the regime will behave.” Mr. Kabulov affirmed, however, that he does not believe that there is any realistic threat of ISIS rising in Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S.-backed government’s collapse. In his words, “I saw in reality the Taliban fighting ISIS (outlawed in Russia) and fighting it viciously unlike the Americans and the whole of NATO, including the Afghan leadership that fled, who did not counter ISIS and only pandered to it. Representatives of the highest Taliban leadership were telling me that they only have this to say to ISIS: there will be no captives…The Taliban, as they said, and I feel it, too—there is a great deal of sincerity here—do not want to repeat their sad destiny for a second time.”

Russia’s interests in pragmatically engaging with the Taliban are a lot clearer with these statements from prominent officials in mind. More than anything, Moscow wants to ensure the security of its diplomats in the country. Second, it believes that it has the obligation to accurately report on the situation in Kabul in order to counteract false portrayals circulating in the mainstream media in the West. Upon realizing that everything is better there than it was under the U.S.-backed government, Russia is beginning to regard the Taliban as an increasingly responsible actor in spite of its lingering terrorist designation. About that, the group’s anti-ISIS capabilities make it a formidable regional security bulwark for protecting Russia’s allies in Central Asia. Should the Taliban succeed in ruling responsibly, Russia can take advantage of February’s agreement to build a Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway as well as extract some of its estimated $3 trillion worth of mineral resources.

To elaborate on those last two policy objectives, President Putin told the Valdai Club in October 2019 about his vision “to connect ports along the Northern Sea Route with ports of the Pacific and Indian oceans via roads in East Siberia and central Eurasia.” PAKAFUZ would accomplish that with respect to the Indian Ocean and thus fulfill Russia’s centuries-long goal to reliably reach that body of water. It would also have the effect of strengthening the Russian-Pakistani relations which have comprehensively improved in recent years as a result of their rapid rapprochement. In theory, PAKAFUZ could facilitate more Russian-Indian trade, too, if New Delhi and Islamabad improve their relations, possibly through Russian mediation, and if Pakistan allows India to export goods across its territory to Afghanistan, Central Asia, and beyond. This is, of course, an ambitious plan but Russia’s gradual return to South Asia makes it increasingly feasible if all sides have the political will.

As for the mineral dimension of Russian interests in Afghanistan, this is important for much more than pure profit. Russia has some of the world’s best mineral extraction companies and could therefore be a viable contender for such contracts, potentially even as a reward for its efforts to tell the world the truth about a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The group seems to be sincere in its endeavors to improve the socio-economic situation for all of its compatriots, to which end it must prioritize reconstructing the country. To do that will be extremely difficult without reliable revenue streams, some of which it can obtain through the aforementioned Russian contracts. Of course, the Taliban would also have to properly manage this revenue and fairly distribute it without any ethnic, regional or religious discrimination in order to sustainably improve its people’s living standards—but Russia could possibly help it do so by playing an advisory role in this respect if need be.

Having explained the specifics of Russia’s pragmatic engagement with the Taliban as well as the objectives that it aims to achieve through these means, we shall turn to the narrative challenges and opportunities that all of this poses. Many observers were surprised to suddenly hear about their close political and security ties, but that is because one constructive critique that can be made of Russian policy in this regard is that its international media outlets did not do enough to inform their foreign audience about this in advance. Some reports and analyses were published from time to time, but it was not sufficient for explaining the nuances of Russia’s policy towards this group, officially designated terrorist. More should have been done in hindsight since even some who have positive impressions of the country’s foreign policy are very confused. It does not make sense to them why Russia would talk to, let alone so actively engage with, literal terrorists.

It is here where Russia’s international media outlets would benefit from awareness of what can be described as their country’s “Ummah Pivot”, which itself is a component of its 21st-century grand strategic goal to become the supreme balancing force in Afro-Eurasia. To concisely summarize an admittedly very complex series of diplomatic engagements from North Africa to South Asia, Russia chose to pioneer a so-called “third way” between the East and West following the worsening of Russia’s relations with the West in 2014 after Euro-Maidan and Crimea’s subsequent reunification with Russia. This strategic vector aims to prevent the Eurasian Great Power from becoming disproportionately dependent on either the EU (the West) or China (the East). It also aspires to have Russia become an indispensable balancing force in the New Cold War between the U.S. and China by presenting the countries caught between them with a credible third choice.

Building upon its diplomatic experiences in mediating a peaceful political solution to the ongoing Syrian War, Russia attempted to do something similar with Afghanistan from 2019 onward by bringing the internationally recognized Afghan authorities at the time, their Taliban opponents and regional stakeholders together into what has since been termed the Extended Troika. Moscow realized that no such solution would be possible without incorporating the Taliban in spite of its designation as a terrorist group. To facilitate its growing legitimacy as a stakeholder in this conflict, Russia encouraged it to cut ties with terrorist groups, which it pledged to do later as part of the February 2020 peace deal with the U.S. This made it more acceptable of an interlocutor just like its Syrian anti-government governments who pledged to do the same in order to participate in the Astana peace process. In other words, Russia is replicating its Syrian model on Afghanistan.

Russia’s international media outlets should, therefore, emphasize this point, namely that their country’s diplomatic successes in Syria laid the groundwork for what it is presently attempting to do in Afghanistan with the Taliban. Russia, being the Eurasian great power, is the only country other than Pakistan to have such close political and security ties with the Taliban, which far exceed even those that China is currently attempting to cultivate. Russia could make use of this observation as the basis upon which to expand its soft power appeal in majority-Muslim countries further. As it stands, Iran, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are the main members of the Ummah with public ties of some sort with Islamist movements abroad, meaning that Russia is doing something unprecedented by pragmatically engaging with the Taliban. The U.S. and some of its NATO allies interact with Islamist groups too, but for the opposite ends. They use them to destabilize countries, not stabilize them.

To be absolutely clear, unlike the aforementioned countries, Russia never provided any material support to Islamist groups abroad—let alone those like the Taliban which it officially designates as terrorists—but only engages with those that have a credible chance of advancing their countries’ peace processes like in Syria and now in Afghanistan too. It only responds to the political realities of those countries’ conflicts instead of seeking to shape them preemptively through its ties with such groups. Upon pragmatically engaging them, however, Russia then attempts to encourage them to moderate their socio-political and militant policies in order to facilitate a peaceful political solution to the conflicts that they are involved in. This is a very unique stance that speaks to both the sincerity and effectiveness of Russia’s envisioned 21st-century grand strategic balancing act. Its international media outlets would, therefore, do well to highlight this to their audience.

The diplomatic dimension of Russia’s balancing act in those Ummah states caught up in Islamist-driven conflict represents an entirely new model that could realistically succeed in other countries, too. It deserves to be actively promoted by the country’s international media outlets in order to raise maximum awareness of this policy. Russia’s hitherto failure to do this has resulted in some observers, including those who tend to hold positive views about it, becoming very confused about its pragmatic engagement with the Taliban. At best, they consider the country to be hypocritical, while at worst, some think that it is cavorting with terrorists for self-interested reasons that risk endangering regional stability. If Russia fails to correct these false perceptions that it is partially at fault for passively allowing to percolate, then its opponents might weaponize them to assault its soft power, but successfully reshaping perceptions will vastly improve its soft power across the world.

From our partner RIAC

Andrew Korybko is a political analyst, journalist and regular contributor to several online journals, as well as a member of the expert council for the Institute of Strategic Studies and Predictions at the People’s Friendship University of Russia. He has published various works in the field of Hybrid Wars, including “Hybrid Wars: The Indirect Adaptive Approach to Regime Change” and “The Law of Hybrid War: Eastern Hemisphere”.

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Putin’s post-Soviet world remains a work in progress, but Africa already looms

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Russian civilisationalism is proving handy as President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the imaginary boundaries of his Russian World, whose frontiers are defined by Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than international law and/or ethnicity.

Mr. Putin’s disruptive and expansive nationalist ideology has underpinned his aggressive

 approach to Ukraine since 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the stoking of insurgencies in the east of the country. It also underwrites this month’s brief intervention in Kazakhstan, even if it was in contrast to Ukraine at the invitation of the Kazakh government.

Mr. Putin’s nationalist push in territories that were once part of the Soviet Union may be par for the course even if it threatens to rupture relations between Russia and the West and potentially spark a war. It helps Russia compensate for the strategic depth it lost with the demise of communism in Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, equally alarmingly, Mr. Putin appears to be putting building blocks in place that would justify expanding his Russian World in one form or another beyond the boundaries of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

In doing so, he demonstrates the utility of employing plausibly deniable mercenaries not only for military and geopolitical but also ideological purposes.

Standing first in line is the Central African Republic. A resource-rich but failed state that has seen its share of genocidal violence and is situated far from even the most expansive historical borders of the Russian empire, the republic could eventually qualify to be part of the Russian world, according to Mr. Putin’s linguistic and cultural criteria.

Small units of the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by one of Mr. Putin’s close associates, entered the Centra African Republic once departing French troops handed over to a United Nations peacekeeping force in 2016. Five years later, Wagner has rights to mine the country’s gold and diamond deposits.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Russian mercenary presence persuaded President Faustin-Archange Touadera that the African republic should embrace Russian culture.

As a result, university students have been obliged to follow Russian-language classes starting as undergraduates in their first year until their second year of post-graduate studies. The mandate followed the introduction of Russian in the republic’s secondary school curriculum in 2019.

Mr. Touadera is expected to ask Mr. Putin for Russian-language instructors during a forthcoming visit to Moscow to assist in the rollout.

Neighbouring Mali could be next in line to follow in Mr. Touadera’s footsteps.

Last month, units of the Wagner Group moved into the Sahel nation at the request of a government led by army generals who have engineered two coups in nine months. The generals face African and Western sanctions that could make incorporating what bits of the country they control into the Russian world an attractive proposition.

While it is unlikely that Mr. Putin would want to formally welcome sub-Saharan and Sahel states into his Russian world, it illustrates the pitfalls of a redefinition of internationally recognised borders as civilisational and fluid rather than national, fixed, and legally enshrined.

For now, African states do not fit Mr. Putin’s bill of one nation as applied to Ukraine or Belarus. However, using linguistics as a monkey wrench, he could, overtime or whenever convenient, claim them as part of the Russian world based on an acquired language and cultural affinity.

Mr. Putin’s definition of a Russian world further opens the door to a world in which the principle of might is right runs even more rampant with the removal of whatever flimsy guard rails existed.

To accommodate the notion of a Russian world, Russian leaders, going back more than a decade, have redefined Russian civilisation as multi-ethnic rather than ethically Russia.

The Central African Republic’s stress on Russian-language education constitutes the first indication in more than a decade that Mr. Putin and some of his foreign allies may expand the Russian world’s civilisational aspects beyond the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Some critics of Mr. Putin’s concept of a Russian world note that Western wars allegedly waged out of self-defense and concern for human rights were also about power and geopolitical advantage.

For example, pundit Peter Beinart notes that NATO-led wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, and Libya “also extended American power and smashed Russian allies at the point of a gun.”

The criticism doesn’t weaken the legitimacy of the US and Western rejection of Russian civilisationalism. However, it does undermine the United States’ ability to claim the moral high ground.

It further constrains Western efforts to prevent the emergence of a world in which violation rather than the inviolability of national borders become the accepted norm.

If Russian interventionism aims to change borders, US interventionism often sought to change regimes. That is one driver of vastly different perceptions of the US role in the world, including Russian distrust of the post-Soviet NATO drive into Eastern Europe and independent former Soviet states such as Ukraine.

“People with more experience of the dark side of American power—people whose families hail from Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Haiti, or Mexico, where US guns have sabotaged democracy rather than defended it—might find it easier to understand Russian suspicions. But those Americans tend not to shape US policy towards places like Ukraine,” Mr. Beinart said.

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Neighbours and Crises: New Challenges for Russia

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Through all the discussions that accompanied the preparation of the Valdai Club report “Space Without Borders: Russia and Its Neighbours”, the most clear question was whether Russia should or should not avoid repeating the historical experience of relations with its near abroad. This experience, in the most general terms, is that after Russia pacifies its western border with its foreign policy, the Russian state inevitably must turn to issues related to the existence of its immediate neighbourhood. With a high degree of probability, it will be forced to turn to its centuries-old method for solving problems that arise there: expansion for the sake of ensuring security.

Now Russia’s near abroad consists of a community of independent states that cannot ensure their own security and survival by relying only on their own forces; we cannot be completely sure of their stability. From Estonia in the west to Kyrgyzstan in the east, the existence of these countries in a competitive international environment is ensured by their link with one of the nuclear superpowers. Moreover, such connections can only complement each other with great difficulty. As the recent developments in Kazakhstan have demonstrated, they are not limited to the threat of an external invasion; even internal circumstances can become deadly.

The dramatic events in that country were intensified by external interference from the geostrategic opponents of Russia, as well as international terrorists, but it would be disingenuous to argue that their most important causes are not exclusively internal and man-made. We cannot and should not judge whether the internal arrangements of our neighbours are good or bad, since we ourselves do not have ideal recipes or examples. However, when dealing with the consequences, it is rational to fear that their statehood will either be unable to survive, or that their existence will take place in forms that create dangers which Russia cannot ignore.

In turn, the events experienced now in relations between Russia and the West, if we resort to historical analogies, look like a redux of the Northern War. The Great Northern War arose at the beginning of the 18th century as the result of the restoration of Russia’s power capabilities; the West had made great progress in approaching the heart of its territory. Within the framework of this logic, victory, even tactical victory, in the most important (Western) direction will inevitably force Russia to turn to its borders. Moreover, the reasons for paying more attention to them are obvious. This will present Russia with the need to decide on how much it is willing to participate in the development of its neighbours.

The developments in Kazakhstan in early January 2022 showed the objective limits of the possibilities of building a European-style sovereign state amid new, historical, and completely different geopolitical circumstances. More or less all the countries of the space that surrounds Russia, from the Baltic to the Pamir, are unique experiments that arose amid the truly phenomenal orderliness of conditions after the end of the Cold War. In that historical era, the world really developed under conditions where a general confidence prevailed that the absolute dominance of one power and a group of its allies creates conditions for the survival of small and medium-sized states, even in the absence of objective reasons for this.

The idea of the “end of history” was so convincing that we could accept it as a structural factor, so powerful that it would allow us to overcome even the most severe objective circumstances.

The Cold War era created the experience of the emergence and development of new countries, which until quite recently had been European colonies. Despite the fact that there are a few “success stories” among the countries that emerged after 1945, few have been able to get out of the catch-up development paradigm. However, it was precisely 30 years ago that there really was a possibility that a unipolar world would be so stable that it would allow the experiment to come to fruition. The visible recipes of the new states being built were ideal from an abstract point of view, just as Victor Frankenstein was guided by a desire for the ideal.

Let us recall that the main idea of our report was that Russia needs to preserve the independence of the states surrounding it and direct all its efforts to ensure that they become effective powers, eager to survive. This desire for survival is seen as the main condition for rational behaviour, i.e. creating a foreign policy, which takes into account the geopolitical conditions and the power composition of Eurasia. In other words, we believe that Russia is interested in the experiment that emerged within the framework of the Liberal World Order taking place under new conditions, since its own development goals dictate that it avoid repeating its past experience of full control over its neighbours, with which it shares a single geopolitical space.

This idea, let’s not hide it, prompted quite convincing criticism, based on the belief that the modern world does not create conditions for the emergence of states where such an experience is absent in more or less convincing forms. For Russia, the challenge is that even if it is technically capable of ensuring the immediate security of its national territory, the spread of the “grey zone” around its borders will inevitably bring problems that the neighbours themselves are not able to solve.

The striking analogy proposed by one colleague was the “hallway of hell” that Russia may soon face on its southern borders, making us raise the question that the absence of topographic boundaries within this space makes it necessary to create artificial political or even civilisational lines, the protection of which in any case will be entrusted to the Russian soldier. This January we had the opportunity to look into this “hallway of hell”. There is no certainty that the instant collapse of a state close to Russia in the darkest periods of its political history should be viewed as a failure in development, rather than a systemic breakdown of the entire trajectory, inevitable because it took shape amid completely different conditions.

Therefore, now Russia should not try to understand what its further strategy might be; in any case, particular behaviour will be determined by circumstances. Our task is to explore the surrounding space in order to understand where Russia can stop if it does not want to resort to the historical paradigm of its behaviour. The developments in Kazakhstan, in their modern form, do not create any grounds for optimism or hopes for a return to an inertial path of development. Other states may follow Ukraine and Kazakhstan even if they now look quite confident. There are no guarantees — and it would be too great a luxury for Russia to accept such a fate.

This is primarily because the Russian state will inevitably face a choice between being ready for several decades of interaction with a huge “grey zone” along the perimeter of its borders and more energetic efforts to prevent its emergence. It is unlikely that Moscow would simply observe the processes taking place on its immediate periphery. This is not a hypothetical invasion of third forces — that does not pose any significant threat to Russia. The real challenge may be that in a few decades, or sooner, Moscow will have to take on an even greater responsibility, which Russia got rid of in 1991. Even now, there seems to be a reason to believe that thirty years of independence have made it possible to create elements of statehood that can be preserved and developed with the help of Russia.

from our partner RIAC

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Do as You’re Told, Russia Tells the Neighborhood

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The Kremlin has always argued that it has special interests and ties to what once constituted the Soviet space. Yet it struggled to produce a smooth mechanism for dealing with the neighborhood, where revolutionary movements toppled Soviet and post-Soviet era political elites. Popular movements in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, and most recently Kazakhstan have flowered and sometimes triumphed despite the Kremlin’s rage.

Russia’s responses have differed in each case, although it has tended to foster separatism in neighboring states to preclude their westward aspirations. As a policy, this was extreme and rarely generated support for its actions, even from allies and partners. The resultant tensions underlined the lack of legitimacy and generated acute fear even in friendlier states that Russia one day could turn against them.

But with the activation of the hitherto largely moribund six-nation Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in Kazakhstan seems to be an entirely different matter. Here, for the first time since its Warsaw Pact invasions, Russia employed an element of multilateralism. This was designed to show that the intervention was an allied effort, though it was Russia that pulled the strings and contributed most of the military force.

CSTO activation is also about something else. It blurred the boundaries between Russia’s security and the security of neighboring states. President Vladimir Putin recently stated the situation in Kazakhstan concerned “us all,” thereby ditching the much-cherished “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the internal affairs of neighboring states. The decision was also warmly welcomed by China, another Westphalia enthusiast.

In many ways, Russia always wanted to imitate the US, which in its unipolar moment used military power to topple regimes (in Afghanistan and Iraq) and to restore sovereignty (in Kuwait.) Liberal internationalism with an emphasis on human rights allowed America and its allies to operate with a certain level of legitimacy and to assert (a not always accepted) moral imperative. Russia had no broader ideas to cite. Until now. Upholding security and supporting conservative regimes has now become an official foreign policy tool. Protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan helped the Kremlin streamline this vision.

Since Russia considers its neighbors unstable (something it often helps to bring about), the need for intervention when security is threatened will now serve as a new dogma, though this does not necessarily mean that CSTO will now exclusively serve as the spearhead of Russian interventionist policy in crises along its borders. On the contrary, Russia will try to retain maneuverability and versatility. The CSTO option will be one weapon in the Kremlin’s neighborhood pacification armory.

Another critical element is the notion of “limited sovereignty,” whereby Russia allows its neighbors to exercise only limited freedom in foreign policy. This is a logical corollary, since maneuverability in their relations with other countries might lead to what the Kremlin considers incorrect choices, like joining Western military or economic groupings.

More importantly, the events in Kazakhstan also showed that Russia is now officially intent on upholding the conservative-authoritarian regimes. This fits into a broader phenomenon of authoritarians helping other authoritarians. Russia is essentially exporting its own model abroad. The export includes essential military and economic help to shore up faltering regimes.

The result is a virtuous circle, in the Kremlin’s eyes. Not only can it crush less than friendly governments in its borderlands but it also wins extensive influence, including strategic and economic benefits. Take for instance Belarus, where with Russian help, the dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka managed to maintain his position after 2020’s elections through brutality and vote-rigging. The end result is that the regime is ever-more beholden to Russia, abandoning remnants of its multi-vector foreign policy and being forced to make financial and economic concessions of defense and economics to its new master. Russia is pressing hard for a major new airbase.

A similar scenario is now opening up in Kazakhstan. The country which famously managed to strike a balance between Russia and China and even work with the US, while luring multiple foreign investors, will now have to accept a new relationship with Russia. It will be similar to Belarus, short of integration talks.

Russia fears crises, but it has also learned to exploit them. Its new approach is a very striking evolution from the manner in which it handled Georgia and Ukraine in 2008 and 2014, through the Belarus and Armenia-Azerbaijan crises in 2020 to the Kazakh uprising of 2022.

Russia has a new vision for its neighborhood. It is in essence a concept of hierarchical order with Russia at the top of the pyramid. The neighbors have to abide by the rules. Failure to do so would produce a concerted military response.

Author’s note: first published in cepa

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