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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S., Russia Break Weapons Impasse

WASHINGTON -- The United States and Russia reached a last-minute agreement saving a program to secure or destroy Soviet nuclear warheads, chemical weapons and killer germs, U.S. officials said Monday, breaking a long logjam and averting a rupture weeks before U.S. President George W. Bush travels to St. Petersburg.

The program, a multibillion-dollar effort designed to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists or rogue states, was set to expire Friday amid a stubborn disagreement over legal provisions. But U.S. and Russian officials cut a deadline deal in Moscow on Friday that will extend the program for seven years and effectively take the issue off the table for Bush's trip.

Although overshadowed by disputes with Iran and North Korea, the Cooperative Threat Reduction program with Russia represents the most expansive disarmament effort in the world, and the prospect that it could be halted deeply worried arms-control specialists. The program, which began 14 years ago, has deactivated thousands of warheads, missiles and bombers and made progress toward securing biological and chemical weapons.

But the work has gone slower than hoped and Russia still maintains thousands of additional aging nuclear warheads as well as vast stockpiles of other weapons that specialists fear are vulnerable to theft or sale on the international black market. U.S. contractors in Russia would have had to shut down activities if Friday's agreement had not been signed by U.S. Ambassador William Burns and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak.

"The extension of the umbrella agreement is critical," said Raphael Della Ratta, a weapons specialist at the Russian American Nuclear Security Advisory Council. Without it, "nuclear weapons delivery systems would not be dismantled, chemical weapons would remain unsecured and undestroyed, and biological pathogens would remain unsecured as well."

A senior administration official said the extension should help propel efforts to eliminate old Soviet weapons. "This reinvigorates and strengthens the ongoing cooperation we've been doing with Russia,'' said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

The extension had been held up for years mainly by a dispute over liability.

A collapse of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program would have stained Bush's visit to St. Petersburg next month for the Group of Eight summit. The meeting will be the group's first held by Russia, which is eager to use the occasion to showcase its re-emergence onto the world stage as a major power.

Critics say Russia has no business hosting an organization of industrial democracies at a time when President Vladimir Putin has constricted political freedoms at home and used energy resources to flex muscles abroad.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney recently criticized Russian actions, and the administration will send two assistant secretaries of state, Daniel Fried and Barry Lowenkron, to a pre-summit meeting to discuss human rights in Russia.

Putin spoke by telephone with Bush on Monday about plans for a meeting on the eve of the G8 summit, the Kremlin said. The phone conversation was the second the two leaders have had this month.

Bush also announced Monday that he would host Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili at the White House shortly before the summit as a statement of solidarity with Russian neighbors under pressure from Moscow.