In the first half of this century, European nations played out two world wars, the most destructive conflicts in history. In the second half, Russia's Warsaw Pact and the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization faced off across a divided Europe.
Now a historic security agreement signed May 27 in Paris by Russia and the 16 NATO members marks an upbeat ending to a century of hatred and division. The accord, called the NATO-Russia Founding Act, sets out terms for a partnership between Russia and NATO, including regular consultations and joint operations. It also opens the door for NATO to invite new members to join at a July summit in Madrid.
"The fate of this continent, Europe, is far from easy," said Russian President Boris Yeltsin at the ceremony. But what brightens this new effort to ensure peace on the Continent, he added, is that "for the first time in history, the people of Europe are joined together by common democratic values."
French President Jacques Chirac captured the high hopes in the air when he declared "a new era of cooperation." The accord does more than alter the divisions between Russia and the West, he said, "It does away with them once and for all."
In impromptu remarks after signing the accord, Mr. Yeltsin stunned NATO officials by saying that Russia would no longer target nuclear weapons at any of the nations represented at the signing. "Every missile that is aimed at countries present here, all of those weapons are going to have their warheads removed," the Russian president said.
Russian officials were quick to clarify Yeltsin's pledge to remove nuclear warheads from missiles pointing at NATO states, and they drained it of much of its apparent significance.
"The president means that Russian warheads will not be targeted at the states that have signed the act," said presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky. "In the future, the situation may arise that the warheads will be dismantled."
In Moscow, military officials told the Interfax News Agency that Yeltsin had meant only that targeting programs would be removed from the missiles, putting them on so-called "zero flight missions."
Moscow removed targeting programs from nuclear missiles aimed at the United States in 1993. Yeltsin's announcement broadens that policy considerably, to all 16 NATO member countries.
But military experts point out that missiles can be reprogrammed with new targets in a matter of minutes, and Yeltsin's promise has more symbolic than strategic importance. White House spokesman Mike McCurry described the remarks as a "confidence-building measure." He added: "The US is involved in a very deliberate, prudent arms-control process. We need to find out exactly what [Yeltsin] meant before we can reciprocate."
NATO was established in 1949 to defend Western Europe against aggression from the Soviet Union, based on the principle that an attack against one was an attack against all. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, NATO officials began a long series of negotiations to redefine NATO's political and military goals. The new agreement establishes that NATO and Russia no longer consider one another to be adversaries, that disputes should be settled peacefully, and that the territorial integrity of states should be respected.
On May 29, NATO members meeting in Sintra, Portugal, will begin formal discussions on how to proceed with NATO expansion. Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic top the list of those expected to be offered invitations at the Madrid Summit in July. France is lobbying openly for the inclusion of other nations, such as Romania. But Washington has yet to publicly comment on its preferences for candidates.
Russia continues to oppose NATO expansion, but credits NATO countries with "taking into account our interests" through the difficult negotiations leading up to the agreement.
The US administration may have its hardest sell for the new NATO in Congress, where the debate over the costs of expansion is expected to be intense. "The State Department is gearing up to make the case as forcefully as possible to the US Congress as to why Europe is important to the United States," Mr. McCurry says.
While Yeltsin was in Paris signing an expanded NATO agreement, presidents of the Baltic countries, Poland, and Ukraine fired rhetorical shots from Tallinn, Estonia, underscoring their resolve that NATO should be open to them.
Yeltsin has said repeatedly that NATO membership for former Soviet states is unacceptable and would seriously undermine security in the region.
Leaders of the Baltic states dismissed that claim. Under the gaze of hundreds of reporters, Gunts Ulmanis, the president of Latvia, politely vowed: "[We] will work together ... to better address security challenges facing all Europe."
* Monitor writer Peter Ford in Moscow and Martha Andersson in Tallinn, Estonia, contributed to this report.