Heralding an unprecedented prospect for peace in Europe, NATO and Russia, sworn enemies for nearly 50 years, struck agreement here yesterday on a deal that is designed to seal their new partnership into the next century.
Capping five months of intense negotiations, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana and Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov said they had reached "full mutual understanding." Mr. Primakov welcomed the document as "a major victory for reason and for the world community."
Details of the exact terms of the accord were being kept secret, pending their approval by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the 16 NATO governments.
The charter, which Mr. Yeltsin will sign in Paris on May 27 if its terms are confirmed, offers guidelines to keep NATO's relations with Russia on an even keel as the Western alliance begins the delicate process of expanding eastward to include Moscow's former Soviet-bloc allies.
But some Russian experts are concerned that Moscow had made too many concessions.
"If the charter is ... a declaration of intent that doesn't solve the real problems, I am afraid that it will prove very shaky ground for future cooperation with NATO," says Alexei Pushkov, a prominent foreign-affairs commentator here.
But Mr. Solana took a more optimistic view. "Without any doubt, we will open a new age in the history of NATO relations with Russia and the stability of our countries," he told reporters in Moscow, after an unscheduled morning of extra talks with Primakov and after a telephone conversation with Mr. Yeltsin.
Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland are expected to be the first new members to be invited to join at NATO's next summit in Madrid in July.
Moscow has bitterly opposed this plan, warning that it would impose new divisions on Europe less than 10 years after the end of the cold war. But the Kremlin has long seemed resigned to NATO's intentions, and sees the document as a way of nailing down Western commitments that will allay Russia's security concerns.
For Western countries, the agreement is seen as a way of bringing Russia fully under a European security roof, making the Kremlin a partner in European affairs so as to ensure stable relations on the Continent.
Russia has won a seat in NATO councils, where it will have a voice to influence future NATO decisions that affect Moscow - though not a veto on those decisions.
But the sharpest differences between NATO and the Kremlin concerned purely military questions.
Moscow was insisting that the agreement should contain legally binding promises that NATO would station neither nuclear weapons nor significant numbers of foreign combat troops in new member states, and that it would not build new military bases.
Sources close to the Russian government said yesterday that it did not appear that Moscow had won such treaty commitments, which NATO had ruled out. The best Solana was offering was a pledge that NATO had no intention, no plan, and no desire to beef up military forces in new member states.
Reading between the lines
Analysts point out that while NATO officials talked of an agreed deal, the Russian Foreign Ministry statement referred only to "essential progress" at the talks that ended yesterday. This suggests that Moscow has not received everything it wanted, and that Primakov was leaving it to Yeltsin to sign off on a not altogether satisfactory document.
"To a large extent, this agreement seems to be a symbolic act rather than a document of real practical value," argues Leonid Fituni, a skeptic about relations with NATO, who heads the Center for Strategic and Global Studies think tank in Moscow.
"I don't think it will erode the sense of suspicion among Russians about Western intentions towards Russia," he adds.
Yeltsin has promised that he would submit the text of a NATO charter to the opposition-dominated Duma, the lower house of parliament, for approval, although he is not obliged by Russian law to do so.
That move, however, risks underlining just how broad the opposition to NATO expansion is through all shades of Russian political opinion. Beyond the hard-liners who do not believe that any sort of agreement with the West can reduce the threat that NATO poses, an overwhelming majority fear that Solana was never ready to make the kind of concessions Russia needed.
"I doubt whether Russia got 50 percent of what it wanted on the military level, and I'm not sure Yeltsin will be able to sell this to the Duma," says Mr. Pushkov. "It is certainly not going to be smooth."