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Jack Mendelsohn
The Potential Impact on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Regime of the START Process, National Missile Defense Deployment, and NATO’s Nuclear Weapons Use Policy

The decade of the 1990s started off well for nuclear arms control. The Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) I, the third U.S.-Soviet strategic arms control treaty, was signed in 1991. In 1992, the Lisbon Protocols brought three former Soviet republics with nuclear weapons - Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine - into the START I agreement and moved them toward eventual denuclearization and membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The second START agreement, between the United States and the newly formed Russian Federation, was signed in early 1993. In 1994, the United States concluded a Framework Agreement with North Korea intended to end that country’s nuclear weapons program. In 1995, the international community agreed to extend the NPT „indefinitely and unconditionally," and in September 1996 most of the world agreed to bring nuclear testing to an end by completing the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The end of the 1990s, however, for diverse and sometimes exogenous reasons, has not been as productive for nuclear arms control as the beginning. In 1997, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) made a critical decision to expand its membership to the East. However one views the wisdom of this move, NATO expansion enormously complicated the West’s relationship with Moscow (and confounded politics in the Kremlin). The adverse reaction in Moscow to the incorporation of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic effectively froze the START process, and the Russian parliament (Duma) has yet to ratify the 1993 START II agreement.

In 1998, India and Pakistan, two of the world’s three undeclared nuclear powers, conducted a series of nuclear tests on the subcontinent, openly defying the nonproliferation norm established by 186 nations of the world. In addition, in 1999, the United States moved to make the deployment of a nationwide antiballistic missile defense system (NMD) an official policy goal, a step that will have a direct impact on the triangular strategic relationship between the United States, Russia, and China. Finally, 1999 found NATO at war for the first time in its history. In addition, NATO reaffirmed, in the Alliance’s Strategic Concept adopted at the 50th anniversary summit in April, its continued reliance on the first use of nuclear weapons.

The START Process and the Non-Proliferation Treaty Regime

The Non-Proliferation Treaty Bargain

Will these events of the late 1990s have an impact on the NPT and the nonproliferation regime? The NPT, signed on 1 July 1968, limits the possession of nuclear weapons to the five states - the United States, the United Kingdom, the USSR (now Russia), France, and China - that had tested nuclear explosives before 1 January 1967. The NPT, however, does not validate the perpetual possession of nuclear weapons by those five states. Rather, the NPT establishes a balance of obligations between the non-nuclear and nuclear-weapon states (the NNWS and NWS). The NNWS agreed never to acquire nuclear weapons. In turn - under Article IV of the Treaty - the NWS agreed to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology with the NNWS and - under Article VI - to pursue nuclear disarmament

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negotiations with the ultimate objective of eliminating nuclear weapons. This „bargain" - non-acquisition of nuclear weapons in exchange for a commitment to their eventual elimination - is the essence of the NPT and the basis of the international nuclear nonproliferation regime.

A primary – but not always sufficient – demonstration of good faith by the NWS in carrying out their disarmament obligations under Article VI of the NPT has been the U.S.-Soviet/Russian strategic arms reduction process. [ This process includes the SALT I and II treaties, the ABM treaty, START I, II and the Lisbon Protocol, as well as the INF treaty and the 1991 unilateral, reciprocal withdrawal of US/Soviet/Russian tactical nuclear weapons.] Progress in force reductions is particularly important at present because of the lack of movement in other nuclear arms control forums: the failure to bring the CTBT into force, the challenge to the NPT norm posed by the nuclear explosive tests of India and Pakistan, and the U.S. push to deploy missile defenses and rewrite the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. This slowdown in other aspects of the arms control process has made implementation of START II one of the only possible major „deliverables" by the nuclear weapon states to the April 2000 NPT Review Conference (the other would be the signed but not yet in force CTBT). Unfortunately, however, ratification of START II by the Russian Duma seems to be held hostage by the moral, physical, and political crises in Washington, Moscow, and southeastern Europe. [ During a 4 June 1999 press conference Vladimir Orlov, director of the Center for Political Studies in Moscow, claimed that the „Balkan crisis has buried the START II Treaty, has virtually halted Russian-American consultations on nuclear disarmament, and has bred a dangerous trend pushing some countries out of the nuclear non-proliferation accord."]

START and the Russian Duma

At the end of 1998, START II, which has been the subject of controversy and vigorous debate in Russia over the past six years, finally appeared to have a realistic chance of being ratified by the Duma. According to Alexei Arbatov, deputy chairman of the Duma Defense Committee, Duma members were being subjected to continuous pressure from President Yeltsin and then-Prime Minister Primakov to support the treaty and „had been bracing themselves for voting for ratification of START II in December 1998." The Duma vote, however, which was scheduled for 22 December 1998, never took place. Protesting the air strikes launched by the United States and the United Kingdom against Iraq on 17 December 1998, the Duma „postponed the matter indefinitely."

In March 1999, Yeltsin’s administration renewed its efforts to obtain START II ratification. According to Alexander Pikayev of the Carnegie Moscow Center, at that time there were approximately 225 Duma legislators who would have voted for treaty ratification. [ The breakdown of the probable Duma vote in March for START II ratification (minus the Communists) was as follows (226 votes are required for ratification): the liberal party „Yabloko", headed by Grigory Yavlinsky, the pro-government „Our Home is Russia" party headed by Victor Chernomyrdin, and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party were likely to approve the treaty, which gave it approximately 140 votes. START II was also likely to be supported by a majority of the Agrarians and the Russian Regional groups, plus half of the conservative „Power for the People" party. This yielded an additional 65-70 votes. There were also 12-15 democratically oriented independent Duma deputies (including former Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev), who, in principle, supported the treaty.] Communist votes were required, however, to ensure a solid majority for ratification. To secure their support and that of their deputies for START II, on 18 March 1999 Prime Minister Primakov met with leaders of the major political factions in the State Duma - Gennady Zhuganov (Communists), Vladimir Ryzhkov („Our Home is Russia"), and Nikolai Kharitonov („Agrarian Party"). At the same time, Primakov was informed by his

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parliamentary interlocutors that treaty ratification could not be guaranteed if Kosovo were bombed by NATO.

During the same week, Russian Defense Ministry officials endorsed the treaty on national television. General Anatoly Kvashnin, a chief of staff in the Russian Ministry of Defense, stated during the broadcast of the popular TV program „Here and Now" that „ratification of START II by the Russian parliament will not do damage to Russia’s security as the strategic nuclear forces of the country will be able to fulfill the task of nuclear deterrence."

By mid-March, it appeared that a six-year ratification gridlock would finally be resolved. Even the 18 March vote of the U.S. Senate on NMD deployment policy did not threaten, as many had feared, the prospects of START II ratification by the State Duma. On 19 March 1999 the Duma, at its last plenary session that month put consideration of START II by the Duma Chamber on its preliminary schedule of work for April. President Yeltsin then submitted the START II ratification bill to the Duma Council on 22 March 1999.

The deliberations and vote in the Duma on START II never took place, however. The Russian Duma refused to consider the treaty ratification in protest of the air war launched by NATO on 23 March 1999 against Former Republic of Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic. Moreover, as the Kosovo crisis escalated further and the bombing intensified, the Russian security and defense establishment was prompted to publicly relegitimize Russia’s nuclear policy and programs.

Colonel General Eugeny Maslin (Ret.), a former chief of the 12th Main Department of the Ministry of Defense, which manages Russia’s nuclear infrastructure and stockpile, stated that Russia should reevaluate the role of strategic nuclear weapons and keep its current weapons in service until the middle of the next century. Additionally, according to General Maslin, Russia should revise the role of tactical nuclear weapons and consider a new generation of these weapons an integral element of its nuclear weapons policy in the next century. The General insisted that „only nuclear arms can guarantee Russia’s national security…. They are the only means which Russia can use to resist a direct aggression."

On 29 April 1999, President Yeltsin called for an urgent meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) to discuss Russian nuclear weapons policy. Russian officials denied that Yeltsin’s decision to hold the NSC meeting had anything to do with the crisis in Kosovo, although according to the Russian daily Segodnya the meeting was one of Russia’s „response measures prompted by the war in Yugoslavia, the amendments to NATO’s doctrine which allow it to interfere in any conflict, and the U.S. de facto breach of the ABM Treaty." At the meeting President Yeltsin reportedly adopted three nuclear-weapon-policy-related decrees, one of which called for a large-scale program of modernization of Russia’s strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. [ PIR Arms Control Letter of 9 June 1999.]

Even after a settlement with the Serbs, the halting of air strikes in Yugoslavia, and the entry of KFOR troops with Russian participation into Kosovo, the prospects for START II treaty ratification by the Russian Duma remain problematic for several reasons. First, the Russian Government will have to conduct a vigorous campaign in support of the treaty. This may be difficult after the dismissal of Mr. Primakov, who was one of the few politicians with sufficient political clout to carry out an effective Duma mobilization campaign. Second, the treaty will have to be considered by the Duma in a narrow window after 9 September 1999

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but before the upcoming December 1999 parliamentary elections put legislators on the campaign trail. And finally, with discussions between the United States and Russia on the future of the ABM treaty scheduled to begin later this summer, the Russians will surely link START ratification - as Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov warned - to „what the Americans are trying to do now as they withdraw from the ABM Treaty."

What Impact on the Non-Proliferation Treaty Regime?

Although the political atmosphere over the past three years has not been conducive to formal cooperation on arms control, both the United States and Russia remain anxious to reduce the size of their strategic force holdings and are likely to continue to streamline and rationalize their forces. Unless U.S.-Russian relations take a dramatic turn for the worse - which cannot totally be ruled out - strategic force levels on both sides are likely to come down over time with or without START as the result of:

  • budget pressures;
  • the absence of an overtly adversarial strategic relationship;
  • greater concern over regional challenges that require conventional force responses; and
  • pressure from and expectations of nuclear-weary publics and parliaments.

Under formal reduction agreements like START or any eventual successor, the United States and Russia would likely be prepared to agree to a level of roughly 1,500-2,000 warheads on each side. If the reductions proceed informally (that is, without treaty commitments), the levels might be somewhat higher and perhaps more uneven (1,500-25,00). Under either a formal or an informal arrangement, the deactivation/destruction process is likely to extend well into the next decade: it is worth recalling that, as currently agreed, START II/III levels will not be reached until 2008 at the earliest.

If, indeed, the stalled strategic force reduction process resumes, either formally or informally, over the next year or two, the actual impact of the current impasse in START on the NPT regime is not likely to be great. On the one hand, with or without START II/III, the United States and Russia will be able to claim major reductions in strategic forces since the 1995 NPT review conference, and those reductions will be under way until at least the end of 2001. [ In January 1999, the United States had 7,958 accountable strategic warheads under START I, down from 10,563 in September 1990. Russia had 6,578 accountable strategic warheads, down from 10,271 in September 1990. These figures are based on START I counting rules and only a rough approximation of available warheads. Bombers have fewer warheads attributed to them than they actually carry, and empty missile silos remain accountable until they have been destroyed.] On the other hand, the almost total lack of progress in formal arms control since signature of the CTBT in late 1996 is likely to generate criticism by a number of NNWS at the 2000 NPT Review Conference.

National Missile Defense and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty

The disruptive impact on the arms control environment created by the U.S. deployment of a national missile defense system (NMD) will be a much greater threat to the NPT regime over the mid- to long term than the present slow-down in the START process.

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The U.S. National Missile Defense System

The principal U.S. rationale for an NMD is to respond to the threat of a small-scale missile attack from a rogue state such as North Korea. The fact that there is no rogue state with a long-range missile, and - the Rumsfeld report notwithstanding - that it is unlikely that one will emerge in the next decade (if ever), seems to be irrelevant. Missile defense enthusiasts also seem to ignore the fact that the most likely rogue state attack scenarios do not involve long-range missiles but rather cargo ships, small aircraft, or rental trucks as delivery systems. Equally disregarded are the technological barriers to an effective system. Moreover, even if and when those barriers are overcome, there would be little basis for judging the ability of a highly complex and fragile defensive system to perform under stress in battle, faced with potential countermeasures and a determined adversary.

The long-running debate over missile defenses in the United States - it has been going on for three decades - has always been a highly charged and emotional one, but also ultimately a political one. Given that one debate slogan is „Who would (or Why) leave America defenseless?" no politician can afford to be caught on the „wrong" side of the issue. As part of the Clinton/Gore administration drive to capture the political center and neutralize Republican rhetoric, particularly on defense issues, the administration has been moving closer to an NMD deployment decision as the 2000 election approaches.

From the point of view of the NPT regime, the most disquieting aspect of NMD deployment is the impact it will have on the U.S./Russian/Chinese strategic relationship. Beijing, at least, still believes in the interaction between missile defenses and offensive weapons and believes that the U.S. deployment of even a „light" NMD will inevitably force China to increase the size of its long-range missile forces.

In an article published in the West, Jiang Zemin, China’s president, wrote that „[r]esearch for and development, deployment and proliferation of sophisticated anti-missile systems, and revision of, or even withdrawal from, the existing disarmament treaties, would inevitably exert a negative impact on international security and stability, triggering new arms races and obstructing disarmament and nonproliferation efforts." [ International Herald Tribune , 16 June 1999.]

Moscow, on the other hand, is desperately short of funds and, as discussed in more detail above, is likely to reduce its strategic nuclear forces to 1,500­2,000 warheads whether or not START II and III are formally implemented, and whether or not the United States deploys NMD. But if, as a result of the U.S. missile defense deployments, China increases the size of its nuclear deterrent forces, and/or Russia feels its retaliatory capability has been seriously diminished, Moscow is certain to resist significant nuclear force reductions below the contemplated START II/III levels.

What Impact on the Non-Proliferation Treaty Regime?

Deploying even a „light" NMD will have at least four outcomes that will have a direct impact on the NPT regime: In seeking to protect the United States against a nonexistent, uncertain, and unlikely challenge, NMD will

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  • stimulate the growth of a potential Chinese threat;
  • hamper efforts to further decrease an existing Russian threat;
  • put significantly deeper nuclear force reductions by the major nuclear powers out of reach for the foreseeable future; and
  • ensure that the smaller nuclear weapon powers will continue to resist reductions - or perhaps even consider increases - in their nuclear forces.

Taken together, these developments would deal a severe blow to the nonproliferation regime. Unfortunately, it is not at all certain that in the near term the NNWS will recognize the threat to Article VI that would be posed by NMD deployments. Of course, it remains to be seen whether U.S. NMD deployments happen, whether the ABM Treaty is gutted by the „adaptation" process (which the United States and Russia have now agreed to begin this fall), and whether NMD and/or highly capable theater missile defense deployments are perceived as substantial enough to destabilize the strategic relationship among the United States, Russia, and China.

What is clear and should be of concern to those seeking to strengthen the nonproliferation regime and a more rational international strategic environment, is that national missile defenses have the potential to block the trend toward significantly lower numbers of nuclear weapons. Equally clear is that both Moscow and Beijing are supporters of the 1972 ABM Treaty and are extremely reluctant to see it tampered with (as are the United Kingdom and France whose smaller nuclear arsenals would be less effective in a world of proliferated missile defenses). A final, unfortunate reality is that the long-term, disruptive impact of NMD deployments on nonproliferation has not been fully appreciated by many of the NNWS that support the regime.

Nuclear Weapons Use Policy

All 19 members of the NATO Alliance, including the three nuclear-weapon states, are bound to the object and purposes of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This includes the Article VI obligation to work toward eventual nuclear disarmament, as well as the goals set out in the Principles and Objectives Document agreed to at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference. Moreover, the three Alliance nuclear-weapon states (together with the two other declared NPT nuclear powers) have committed themselves to respect a broad „negative security assurance" (NSA), reaffirmed most recently in conjunction with the 1995 NPT Conference.

Under these NSAs, the nuclear-weapon states promise never to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapon state party to the NPT except in response to an attack by such a state in alliance with a nuclear-weapon state. [ The text of the 1995 U.S. NSA reads: „The United States affirms that it will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons except in the case of an invasion or any attack on the United States, its territories, its armed forces or other troops, its allies, or on a State toward which it has a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a non-nuclear weapon State in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon State." It is important to note that this statement makes no exception for an attack with conventional, chemical, or biological weapons.] It is important to note that no exceptions are made in the NSA commitment for a nuclear response to chemical or biological weapons. In its July 1996 advisory opinion on nuclear weapons, the International Court of Justice implied that these NSA commitments are legally binding under international law. Ten

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of the Court’s 14 judges determined that the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is illegal in all but one possible circumstance: a threat to the very existence of the state.

NATO’s First Use Posture

NATO’s current nuclear doctrine, as formulated in the 1999 Alliance Strategic Concept, retains the right of first use of nuclear weapons and, in so doing, is at odds with both the NPT-related NSA commitments of the United States, United Kingdom, and France, as well as the stated security objectives of the Alliance as a whole. [ NATO’s 1999 nuclear doctrine emphasizes that „nuclear forces based in Europe and committed to NATO provide an essential political link between European and North American members of the Alliance," „remain vital" to and constitute the „supreme guarantee" of NATO security, and are „essential to preserve peace" (as stated in the Alliance’s Strategic Concept, April 1999, par. 63, par. 46, par. 62, par. 19). Although the Strategic Concept was updated to characterize the possible use of nuclear weapons as „extremely remote" (par. 64), the potential first use of these weapons is still official policy.] Retention of the option to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into a conflict involving only conventional military forces is inconsistent with the negative security assurances given to the NNWS in association with the indefinite extension of the NPT. [ There is only one NNWS (Cuba) that is not a member of the NPT. Three nuclear-capable states, India, Israel, and Pakistan are also not parties to the NPT.] As a result, a first-use option also undercuts a fundamental NATO goal, also stated in the 1999 Strategic Concept, of ensuring, as part of its approach to security, that its „defense and arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation objectives remain in harmony." [ It is worth noting that of the other two NPT nuclear powers, China has a no-first-use policy and Russia has a policy that essentially conforms to the International Court of Justice opinion, „reserving the right to use all available forces and means, including nuclear weapons , if as a result of military aggression, there is a threat to the existence of the Russian Federation as a sovereign state ." [emphasis added]]

In addition to the NATO first-use option, which was originally adopted by the Alliance to counter the overwhelming conventional superiority of Warsaw Pact forces, the United States also maintains the option to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of chemical and biological weapons by NNWS. In April 1996, Robert Bell of the U.S. National Security Council, speaking about U.S. signature of the African Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone Treaty (ANWFZ) stated that: „Under Protocol I, which we signed, each party pledges not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against an ANWFZ party. However, Protocol I will not limit options available to the United States in response to an attack by an ANWFZ party using weapons of mass destruction." [Emphasis added]

For NATO, the most powerful conventional alliance in history, and the United States, the most powerful nation in that alliance, to insist that they need the threat of retaliation with nuclear weapons to deter, for example, the chemical or biological weapons of Saddam Hussein, raises the question why other nations, much weaker than NATO and surrounded by hostile neighbors, do not need them as well. Moreover, a NATO and U.S. first-use policy against, in effect, conventional, chemical, and biological weapons, suggests that nuclear weapons have many useful military roles. It also reinforces the overall political value attributed to these weapons and undermines efforts to persuade the NNWS to respect the nonproliferation regime and refrain from developing their own nuclear weapons.

There is, in truth, no non-nuclear threat to U.S. or Alliance security that would warrant a nuclear response. As three respected members of the U.S. national security establishment noted in 1993: „There is no vital interest of the U.S., except the deterrence of nuclear attack, that cannot be met by prudent conventional readiness. There is no visible case where the U.S.

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could be forced to choose between defeat and the first use of nuclear weapons. This is one crucially important meaning of the 1989-91 transformation of Europe." [ McGeorge Bundy, William J. Crowe, and Sidney Drell, „Reducing the Nuclear Danger", Foreign Affairs 72, no. 2 (Spring 1993).]

Nothing has occurred in the last years of this decade to make nuclear weapons more relevant to European security. If anything, they have become an even more anachronistic part of NATO’s arsenal. As the „immaculate intervention" in Kosovo has demonstrated, NATO is prepared for out-of-area missions in the twenty-first century in defense of moral principles and human rights but to do so only in a constrained and „casualty-free" way and with the minimum amount of collateral damage. It is impossible for NATO to reconcile the use of a nuclear weapon, or any weapon of mass destruction, with the pursuit of the reasonable, limited, and humane goals that will be invoked to justify future interventions. Moreover, it is difficult for the Alliance to continue to rely on a nuclear first-use option and undertake out-of-area missions - instead of the traditional defense of territory or response to an aggressor - without immediately raising the political stakes in any intervention.

Many proponents of nuclear first-use admit that neither the United States nor the Alliance is likely to use nuclear weapons except in retaliation for a nuclear attack. Nonetheless, they argue that uncertainty - or „calculated ambiguity" as it has come to be called - as to the extent and nature of the Alliance response deters a potential aggressor from initiating a chemical or biological attack. But the utility of this „calculated ambiguity" has been greatly diminished with the disclosures in memoirs by senior policy makers that whatever policy was implied, the United States never had under any circumstances any intention of using nuclear weapons in the Persian Gulf War. [ See, for example, Colin Powell, My American Journey (New York: Random House 1995), p. 472 and 486; George W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed. The Collapse of the Soviet Empire, the Unification of Germany, Tianamnen Square, and the Gulf War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1998) , p. 463; and James A. Baker with Thomas M. Defrank, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace, 1989-1992 (East Rutherford, N.J.: Putnam 1995), p. 359.] As a result of the historical record, it is quite possible that „calculated ambiguity" is no longer an effective policy (if it ever was), and equally possible that there is little deterrent value left in the U.S. or Alliance threat of nuclear first-use in non-nuclear military confrontations.

What Impact on the Non-Proliferation Treaty Regime?

As we enter the twenty-first century, the principal threats to the security of the United States and NATO and its member states will not come from a hostile superpower, but rather from regional dictators, rogue states, and violent subnational groups such as criminals, cults, or terrorists. The Alliance’s best defenses against these threats are not nuclear weapons but rather

  • its unsurpassed technical and human intelligence capabilities;
  • its overwhelming conventional superiority; and
  • its support of the international nonproliferation regime.

The United States and the NATO Alliance should be doing everything within their power on the political level to devalue nuclear weapons and strengthen the nonproliferation regime. Espousing an unrealistic and unrealizable policy of nuclear first-use leaves the unavoidable impression with the NNWS that nuclear weapons are desirable and, moreover,

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essential to security. From the point of view of the security interests of the United States and the Alliance, this is precisely the wrong message. If the political value of these systems is not lowered, then the attractiveness of these weapons will be too great, and the acquisition of the technology on which they are based too easy, for states to continue to forswear them.

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© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | Februar 2000

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