What does the Ukraine conflict mean for West Asia?

TALMIZ AHMAD
New Delhi, March 26:
Western commentators are struggling to describe the significance of the ongoing war in Ukraine. Fareed Zakaria has described it as a “seismic event”, the most significant international event since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and believes it marks “the end of an age”. Francis Fukuyama has called it “a critical turning point in world history”. He views it as the latest assault on liberalism that had started well before the war when illiberal authoritarian regimes had emerged in several major countries; he sees the war as a reminder “in the most vivid way possible what the consequences of illiberal dictatorship are”. Thomas Friedman simply says: “Our world is not going to be the same again.”
These cataclysmic prognostications from Western sources have not had the same reverberations in West Asia. Four years of the anarchy wreaked in the region by Donald Trump followed by one year of Joe Biden’s insipid and shaky presidency have already created a diplomatic churn, with regional states pursuing fresh engagements and alignments, interactions that are independent of the US. The region, in short, has come of age and is anxious to define its own interests and shape its own policy approaches and alignments.
This is best exemplified by the first reactions of the region’s principal role-players – despite many being long-standing US allies, not one of them, besides Kuwait, has sided with the US in sharply condemning Russia; not one of them has imposed harsh sanctions to cripple the Russian economy.
Regional responses to the war
On 23 February, a day before the Russian invasion, the UAE and Russian foreign ministers spoke telephonically about regional and international developments and emphasised their “keenness to enhance the prospects of UAE-Russian cooperation”. On 25 February, the UAE abstained on a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution that was critical of Russia. Two days later, it again abstained on a procedural resolution to refer the invasion to the UN General Assembly. Soon thereafter, Russia rewarded the UAE by abstaining on a UNSC resolution that described the Houthis in Yemen – who had fired drones on Abu Dhabi on 17 January this year – as a “terrorist” organisation.
Saudi Arabia, a US ally from 1945, in response to the US’ sanctions on energy exports from Russia, refused to increase its oil production to bring down global oil prices. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reported that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and his UAE counterpart, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, both refused to take calls from Biden when he was seeking to make personal appeals to them to increase oil production. Later, both of them took calls from President Putin and also spoke to the Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky, in an apparent mediation effort. A little later, when an American journalist asked Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman if Biden had misunderstood him, the prince answered: “Simply, I do not care.”
Qatar, the world’s major gas producer, has been courted by both the US and Russia. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, was the first Gulf leader welcomed in Biden’s White House in January this year, with his country being conferred the status of a “major non-NATO ally”. Biden’s interest was to encourage Qatar to divert some of its gas to European markets to make up for reduced Russian supplies following the energy-related sanctions that the US imposed on 8 March. In response, Putin addressed a letter to the emir setting out how bilateral relations could be expanded; it was delivered during the annual meeting of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum in Doha. Rather than choose sides, the Qatari foreign minister took the mediation route by making calls to his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts.
Turkey, a NATO member with close political, military and economic ties with Russia, has been manoeuvring through a diplomatic minefield. It criticised Russia’s recognition of the two break-away republics, and later, described the invasion as a “state of war”, but announced no punitive sanctions.
Calling the invasion as “war” did invoke the provisions of the Montreux Convention of 1936 which would prevent the entry and exit of Russian ships through the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits. But the ground situation is not so straight-forward: the convention does not restrict movements of ships to or from their home base; thus, Turkey cannot ask ships already in the Black Sea to leave or prevent Russian ships returning to their home base in the Black Sea.
Israel, perhaps the US’ closest ally in West Asia, has opted for what an Israeli scholar, Eran Etzion, has called “strategic selfishness” – adopting a neutral posture as between the US and Russia and then diverting attention from its failure to back the US through some hectic interventions in Moscow and Kyiv as part of its “mediation” effort.
The Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, in his response to the Ukraine invasion said Iran “opposed both war and domination”. The last was a reference to Russian concerns relating to NATO’s eastward expansion. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was more categorical: on 1 March, he referred to the Biden presidency as a “mafia regime” and said: “All sorts of mafias control their country and bring presidents to power. They create crises in the world to maximise their power.” He added that “the root of the crisis in Ukraine is US policies that create crisis. Ukraine is a victim of these policies.”
West Asia’s distancing from the US
The near-total absence of support for the US from across the region appears to have surprised many of its officials and even some commentators. But the factual position is that distancing from the US has been a steady process for some years, though specific reasons may differ from country-to-country.
In Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the first concerns emerged in the early days of the Arab Spring — they saw the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, with the US doing nothing to back its old ally. This was followed by what they saw as US failure to intervene in the Syrian conflict and effect regime change after evidence emerged in January 2013 of the use of chemicals weapons by the Bashar al-Assad government against its civilian population a month earlier. Later, in September 2019, they saw the Trump administration not responding to the serious attack on Saudi oil facilities, allegedly by the Houthis, but clearly with Iranian support.
The final straw was the ignominious US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, under Biden, with the US being viewed as again abandoning an ally, the government in Kabul. As the commentator on regional affairs, Hussein Ibish has said, “Disappointment and lack of confidence in Washington is almost unanimous among its Middle East friends, and for good reason”.
Even as US credibility as a security-provider plunged to new depths, many regional states simultaneously built substantial political, energy, economic and logistical-connectivity ties with Russia and China. Russia built its regional credibility during the chaotic Trump period. After ensuring, through the use of its military, that no regime-change would occur in Damascus, Moscow emerged as the go-to capital for almost all regional leaders who found Putin effectively serving their diverse interests.
For Israel, Russia was the only player capable of restraining the presence of Iran and Hezbollah at its northern borders with Syria, even as it periodically provided the green signal for Israeli attacks on Iranian assets in Syria. Hence, not surprisingly, Israel was restrained in its response when the Ukraine invasion occurred, with its leaders saying that its “operational freedom” over Syria depended on Putin’s “good will”.
In contrast to the Trump presidency, Biden was hostile to Saudi Arabia and its crown prince throughout his election campaign, when he referred to the country as a “pariah” and then, early in his administration, announced he would not interact with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; for good measure, he also released the CIA report that strongly suggested that the crown prince was behind the Jamal Khashoggi murder. Biden also insisted on an early end of the war in Yemen and stopped the supply of “offensive” weapons to the kingdom.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and Russia have been partners from 2016 in the management of oil supplies in world markets by the “OPEC +” coalition that brings together OPEC members working in tandem with Russia and a few other oil producers — Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Brunei, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Mexico, Oman, South Sudan and Sudan.
This grouping, through considerable internal discipline, was able to ensure adherence to national quotas by member-states and successfully weathered the challenge of low prices in the face of shale oil production. Following their agreement in August 2021, the “OPEC +” have ensured that prices have gradually crossed $100/ barrel and today hover around $125. In this background, it is not surprising that the kingdom has prioritized the interests of “OPEC +” and refused Biden’s plea for increased oil production.
Despite its NATO membership, Turkey has pursued strategic autonomy, and it is to Russia that it has turned. Blaming the US for protecting Fethullah Gulen, whom President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses of masterminding the failed coup of July 2016, Turkey built military ties with Russia, starting with the purchase of the S-400 missile defence system. The two countries, with Iran, became partners in pursuing the Astana peace process in Syria. In the interest of preserving ties with Turkey, Russia accommodated the latter’s military ambitions in the country, its backing of extremist elements at Idlib, and its hostile actions against the Kurds. Russia also countenanced Turkey being on the opposite side in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict late last year as also in Libya.
In the face of crippling sanctions imposed by the US, Russia has been a principal political and economic ally for Iran. Russia-Iran ties flourished during the eight years of the Rouhani presidency – the president visited Moscow four times, while Foreign Minister Javad Zarif went there thirty-three times.
After assuming the presidency in August 2021, Ebrahim Raisi has continued to prioritize ties with Russia, imparting to them a greater security, economic and geopolitical content, the last focusing on their shared interests in Syria, Afghanistan and the Eurasian landmass in general. In January 2022, during his first visit to Moscow as president, Raisi gave Putin the draft of a bilateral 20-year cooperation agreement.
Given the strong indications from the Biden administration that it was disengaging from West Asian affairs, over the last year regional powers had already begun to explore among themselves how their differences could be effectively addressed. Saudi and Iranian officials met each other four times at meetings organised in Baghdad, though there are so far no indications of progress in regard to bilateral ties or the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen. A fifth round was suspended in mid-March, a day after Saudi Arabia carried out mass executions that included 41 Shia, though it is also likely that Iran was then focused on the final stage of the nuclear agreement discussions in Vienna.
Turkey’s outreach to the region has been more fruitful. Ankara hosted the UAE national security adviser, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed, in August 2021, and then, in November, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed. The latter announced UAE investments of $10 billion in Turkey’s ailing economy, after which the UAE central bank placed $5 billion in a swap arrangement in Turkey to bolster the national currency. Turkey has also made diplomatic overtures to Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Besides the impetus provided to these engagements by possible US disengagement from the region, other motivating factors are the reduced sense of concern emanating from political Islam among the Gulf leaders and Egypt and, linked with this, the need to adopt a fresh approach to the conflicts in Syria and Libya which have reached a military stalemate.
The Ukraine war has created a fresh churn in regional diplomacy.
Ukraine’s impact of West Asia
The immediate impact in West Asia of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been in five main areas:
– Turkey’s management of ties with Russia and the US, while retaining its commitment to strategic autonomy.
– UAE’s diplomatic engagements as part of its assertive strategic diversity.
– Saudi Arabia’s energy diplomacy to ensure the integrity of OPEC +.
– Iran’s difficult negotiations on the nuclear agreement in Vienna.
– The serious food crisis facing the region.
– Turkey’s tight-rope diplomacy
In the context of the Ukraine conflict, Ankara has become the centre of intense diplomatic activity – it has received in quick succession: the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg; the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz; the Israeli president, Isaac Herzog, and the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Besides these dignitaries, the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu hosted his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts in Antalya, on 10 March.
Erdogan had every reason to be deeply concerned about the Ukraine war: his economy is in dire straits, he is under considerable US pressure to play a role as a NATO member even as he has been reluctant to alienate the Russian leader, and, above all, he faces national elections in June 2023 – sensing his weak position, opposition leaders were coming together to inflict a heavy defeat on him and, possibly, take the country back to the Western alliance.
As of now, Turkey is crucially dependent on Russia – the latter supplies about half of Turkey’s natural gas, two-thirds of its wheat imports and a big chunk of its tourism revenue; Russia is also building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant and is a partner in the Syrian peace process. But Turkey has close ties with Ukraine as well: it is a valued market for its military products and a partner in the development of certain defence items. Hence the need for tight-rope diplomacy.
However, as note above, Turkey’s recognition of a “state of war” between Russia and Ukraine hardly has any strategic implications in terms of the Montreux Convention; its value is symbolic, a signal to its NATO partners that it remains allied with them. This has also led the Turkish president to offer to mediate in the conflict – a Turkish role in the peace process is perhaps likely to be more palatable to the belligerents, particularly if Israel moves in as a partner in the mediation effort. Israeli commentator, Ben Caspit, has noted that Turkey and Israel could be coordinating their peace moves, following the goodwill generated by the visit of the Israeli president to Ankara on 9 March.
Erdogan’s principal effort now is to convert the challenge generated by the Ukraine war into a personal opportunity – by placing his country at the centre peace initiatives, obtaining the maximum possible economic advantages from all sides, and building his profile at home as a leader in a regional crisis in order to reap benefits in the elections next year.
UAE’s diplomatic activism
As the UAE abstained on the UNSC vote criticising Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its commentators appeared to be in a triumphant mode. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, who is believed to reflect official thinking, wrote that the UAE vote followed from the country’s “foreign policy activism”, which in turn emerged “from being confident in its decisions and approach” to regional and global affairs. He added that this approach might not please Washington, “but that’s the way things are going to be from now on”. Abdulla went on to describe the present scenario as a “post-American world [and] post-America Gulf”, which “translates into also more of China, in the region and throughout”.
Some Western commentators have described UAE diplomacy as “hedging”, ie, maintain close ties with the US, but, at the same time hedge by building other relationships as well – at the global level, this means China. As US commentator Jon Alterman has recently pointed out, the bulk of China’s trade with Europe and Africa passes through UAE ports; China is a major presence in developing the country’s infrastructure; the UAE works with Huawei, the Chinese 5G telecom equipment, despite US protests, and a quarter of a million Chinese nationals live in the UAE. After the UAE cancelled the purchase of fifty American F-35 fighter planes worth $23 billion, largely due to US technology transfer restrictions, it acquired a dozen Chinese Hongdu L-15 training fighter aircraft, as part of its diversification of military supplies.
UAE’s hedging also explains its extraordinary diplomatic activism in recent times – substantial engagements with Iran and Turkey, which were followed by hosting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Dubai on 18 March, signalling not just an increasing distance from the US, but also asserting its own presence in a contentious area.
A little later, on 21-22 March, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed joined Egyptian president, Abdelfattah al-Sisi and Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, at a tripartite summit at Sharm el-Sheikh, the Egyptian resort on the Red Sea. UAE commentator Abdulla said the three were conveying a “collective message” to the US and Iran.
The three leaders brought considerable collective synergy to the conclave: their discussions focused on the implications of the successful conclusion of the nuclear agreement with Iran and of the Ukraine conflict, and pursuit of tripartite economic cooperation. Other matters examined were the management of tensions in Gaza in coming weeks and the outlook for Syria following al-Assad’s public rehabilitation. Though alignment of positions and interests is some way off, the tripartite meeting had considerable symbolic value – a high-level conclave of regional leaders without any US presence.
Taking a cue from the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, Israel is convening on 27-28 March a meeting of the three Arab countries – the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco – which have normalized ties with it, with their US counterpart, giving the latter one more opportunity to get these countries, particularly the UAE, to back the US on the Ukraine war.
Iran and the JCPOA negotiations
Towards the end of February this year, the talks in Vienna on reviving the nuclear agreement with Iran, technically called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that had started in April 2021, seemed to have reached their final stage – most issues had been agreed to, with only a few “sticking points” requiring final approval. Following the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine from 24 February, the negotiators attempted to insulate the discussions in Vienna from the conflict, even though Russia was a member of the P4+1 (others being China, the UK, France and Germany, with the European Union as the coordinator).
On 5 March, the Ukraine war seeped into the conference room when Russia sought written guarantees that the sanctions imposed on it due to the war would not affect its role in the implementation of the JCPOA. The reference here was to the JCPOA provision that Iran would ship its extra enriched uranium to Russia and the latter would also help to downgrade the Fordow nuclear facility to shift it from its weapons potential to medicinal use.
It took ten days for this matter to be resolved – with Russia’s role in the JCPOA being reconfirmed. During this period, Russia was castigated in the Western media for seeking to deliberately scuttle the agreement at the last moment. That this was just posturing became clear when, nearly a fortnight after the Russian issue was resolved on 14 March, the nuclear agreement has not been finalized.
The outstanding issue relates to the removal of the designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist organisation (FTO) by the US; this had been done by the Trump administration in August 2019, soon after the US withdrew from the JCPOA. Given that the IRGC is already subject to several other US sanctions, the removal of the FTO tag hardly has any practical implications – but its symbolic value is considerable for both sides.
For Iran, the IRGC is the guardian of the Islamic revolution and, as a state institution, has responsibility for the defence of national borders and the waters of the Persian Gulf. Hence, the FTO designation is just not acceptable to Iran. At the same time, the removal of the tag is now a factor in US domestic politics – the Republicans and even a few Democratic senators are opposed to it, as are the Israeli prime minister and foreign minister.
Israel and some Arab states, possibly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, want the talks to fail so that the sanctions on Iran are not lifted, and Iran’s role in regional affairs remains restricted. But the argument against this position is that it is far better to restrict Iran’s weapons programme than live with the constant threat of it opting to develop nuclear weapons – US withdrawal from the JCPOA only encouraged Iran to violate the JCPOA provisions and enrich uranium up to 60 percent, just short of weapons grade.
The worrying aspect of the stalemate at Vienna is the escalation in what Israel calls its “campaign-between-wars” with Iran. In February, Israel attacked an Iranian arsenal of hundreds of drones. On 7 March, in a bombing in Syria, Israeli aircraft killed two Iranian IRGC officers. On 13 March, Iran fired missiles into Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, targeting what Iran called operational bases of Israel’s intelligence service, Mossad. Iran officially described this as a “wake-up” to regional states that were hosting Israeli facilities.
Saudi Arabia’s energy diplomacy
Through February, the US sent several Patriot anti-missile interceptors to Saudi Arabia to protect the kingdom from drone and missile attacks directed at Saudi energy and other targets by the Houthis in Yemen. This is an effort being made by the Biden administration to placate Saudi Arabia and rebuild relations that have been frayed by public expressions of hostility by the US president directed at the country and its crown prince.
None of this has worked so far. On 22 March, the editor of the English-language Saudi daily, Arab News, headlined his article, “Biden is becoming a master at losing friends and alienating allies”. He then cited: attempts to remove the FTO tag from the IRGC; failure to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organisation, despite the frequent attacks on Saudi energy facilities; and, above all, the failure to back the US’ longstanding allies – in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Israel, and, most recently, Ukraine, whose president had to plead for US weaponry after being denied NATO membership – in short, alienating the very friends who would “help deter authoritarian aggressors bent on harming US interests and values”.
This sense of deep grievance in the kingdom has been reflected most emphatically in the Saudi response to desperate US pleas to increase oil production and ease global prices that skyrocketed to nearly $140/ barrel after the US placed an embargo on Russian energy exports. The kingdom has steadfastly adhered to the “OPEC +” agreement to implement modest increases of 400,000 barrels/ day from August 2021 to September 2022, an arrangement that is being implemented in close cooperation with Russia.
Oil analysts have noted that, between them, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have spare capacity of more than 3 million barrels/ day and, given that total Russian oil exports are 5 mbd, they could easily bring down prices by just producing their spare capacity. However, Anchal Vohra, writing in Foreign Policy, has pointed out that Gulf rulers “no longer feel the need to be on the right side of the United States and are embracing newer alliances with like-minded authoritarians”.
The challenge of food security
While political positions, engagements and alignments are being pursued among different actors in West Asia and North Africa (WANA), the dark cloud haunting the entire region is the threat to its food security. Russia and Ukraine together provide 40 percent of the region’s wheat imports; the dependence of some countries is even higher – 85 percent in the case of Egypt, the world’s biggest wheat importer, and 90 percent in Lebanon. The conflict has exacerbated the existing problem of hunger – 55 million people in WANA experience hunger, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Human Rights Watch (HRW) have pointed out that Ukraine’s Black Sea region, presently affected by the war, provides 12 percent of food calories traded in the world; besides wheat, the country is also the leading global exporter of sunflower oil, barley, corn, rapeseed and poultry. On 9 March, Ukraine banned food exports to safeguard domestic interests, but, HRW says that, even when conflict ends, supply disruptions will continue as the war has destroyed agricultural infrastructure and machinery, and several farmers have fled to safer places.
Linked with the disruption in food supplies is the problem of rising prices – in war-torn Yemen, Australia has quoted for wheat supplies at $600/ tonne, as against the pre-war Ukrainian price of $255/ tonne. Given the sensitivity of food prices in a country where a third of the population is below the poverty-line, in Egypt the staple flat bread is heavily subsidised, with consumers paying just a tenth of the production cost: the annual subsidy on bread is $3.2 billion; in the financial year 2021-22, the additional cost will be nearly $700 million.
Compounding food issues in WANA is the fact that major countries in the region are experiencing poor harvests due to drought, perhaps brought on by climate change. The US Department of Agriculture has projected that Iran, Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt will together need to increase their grain imports in 2021-22 to 35.5 million tonnes, i.e., 17 percent of the world total, as against 25.9 million tonnes in the previous year, or 13 percent of the total.
Not surprisingly, given that the Arab Spring uprisings a decade ago were triggered by a regionwide economic crisis, some commentators are suggesting that the Ukraine could aggravate popular discontent; though this might not evolve into angry agitations for change, (perhaps because the experience of the pandemic has made people more stoic), there will be fresh pressures on governments to attend to popular interests, beyond the concerns brought on by matters related to security and strategic interests.
Outlook for WANA
A month after the commencement of the Ukraine war, the principal feature of politics in West Asia have been the attempts of the principal regional states to maintain a balance as between the US and Russia, basing their position variously on “strategic diversity”, “strategic selfishness” or just plain hedging. Despite considerable US pressure and behind-the- cajolery, none of the states concerned has rushed to the US embrace – an extraordinary exhibition of independence of action.
What the region has witnessed has been a flurry of interactions – with national leaders sitting in bilateral and even trilateral conclaves to exchange views and assessments. Their most immediate concerns relate to the Ukraine war and the JCPOA and, related to that, Iran’s role in regional affairs. The most interesting conclave has been the one that brought together Egypt, the UAE and Israel at Sharm el-Sheikh, but, before the Ukraine conflict we had seen Iraq, Jordan and Egypt announcing an economic and political partnership, while Iran could still bank on its support bases in Syria and Iraq, even though the latter was wearing thin under popular pressure.
What is different about these alignments from the Trump era is that earlier they had constituted conflictual battle-lines – Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt were ranged against Iran, Iraq, Syrian and the militia, Hamas and Hezbollah. At present, none of these alignments is inherently conflictual — in fact many partners of one group are actually engaged with members of other groups, e.g., the UAE and Saudi Arabia with Iran, and Syria with the UAE.
The second change in the region is that the influence of political Islam, as represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and its diverse affiliates, has largely abated. The Brotherhood is riven with internal divisions, with its adherents debating a thoroughgoing revamp of its ideological basis and the need for greater openness to a broader set of interests that would include: popular participation in politics, liberalism, development, poverty and inequality, climate change, etc. This absence of ideological competition has opened opportunities for new interactions – with Turkey and Qatar now open to fresh interactions with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, as also with Israel.
The third feature of regional affairs is the long-term value that each regional player attaches to ties with Russia and China: based on the solid foundations of energy, trade, investment and logistical connectivity initiatives, for each country these ties have begun to include a strategic content – increasing dialogue on political matters and expanding defence ties. These relations, taken together, constitute a significant change from a few years ago when the US was the sole go-to partner for most regional states.
Commentators are generally baffled about the shape of things to come. Most suggest, somewhat lazily, that the present-day assertions of autonomy by regional states will be short-lived and they will fairly soon re-join the US alliance. This assessment has misread the powerful signals emanating from national capitals – West Asia has truly changed; the US will not find in the region the unthinking support for its approaches, most of which had earlier obtained reluctant backing even when they were harmful to regional interest and pursued against regional counsel.
The Ukraine war has not created a new regional order; it has ensured that it is strengthened – and regional players pursue their interests independently and confidently.

(The author, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune.)
(The content is being carried under an arrangement with indianarrative.com)
–indianarrative

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