By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 20, 2006
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 yesterday, breaking a long logjam and averting a rupture weeks before President 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 after the Cold War ended, 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 J. Burns and Russian 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."
At the same time, he and other experts have complained that the Bush administration has not shown sufficient urgency about eliminating Russian arms. "We are in a race against time to secure these materials before they're lost, stolen or get into the wrong hands," said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "This is a necessary but insufficient step. The administration needs to push down the accelerator in terms of the pace of work."
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. Under the original agreement, Russia was responsible for any mishaps, even accidents or negligence by U.S. contractors. Russia has balked at that provision. The renewal keeps the original language for current projects but will address Russian concerns for future projects. It does not affect a separate plutonium-disposal program announced in 1998 but never started because of a similar dispute.
A collapse of the Cooperative Threat Reduction program would have marred 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 reemergence on 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. Bush has maneuvered to avoid the image that he is endorsing Putin's course by attending the summit.
Vice President 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. Bush also announced yesterday that he will 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.
The Cooperative Threat Reduction agreement was reached in 1992 at the instigation of Sens. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and was renewed in 1999. Since then, it has deactivated or destroyed 6,828 nuclear warheads, 612 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 885 nuclear air-to-surface missiles, 577 submarine-launched missiles, 155 bombers and 29 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, among others, according to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
But it still has much to do. About half of the nuclear warheads, ICBMs, ICBM silos, submarine-launched missiles and nuclear submarines targeted by the program have yet to be eliminated, according to the agency. A chemical-weapons destruction facility is more than 60 percent unfinished and the Government Accountability Office reported that it may not open by 2009.
Lugar hailed the extension but called on Congress to remove other conditions that threaten the program: "If the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is the number one national security threat facing our country, we cannot permit any delays in our response."