Russia's relations with the US are warmer than at any time since World War II, but experts here are warning that the new partnership could easily founder upon a piece of paper - or the lack of one.
As Washington sketches out its terms for a new world security order, Kremlin leaders are anxiously waiting to see where Russia fits in. President Vladimir Putin has signaled to George W. Bush that he may be prepared to accept America's leadership and even much of its global agenda. But everything hinges on an as-yet unresolved debate.
Russia expects to receive a seat at the Western table, one rooted in solid documentation, whereas the US has indicated a preference for ad hoc relations unencumbered by the ponderous legal protocol of the past.
"So far there are just two presidents who have talked pleasantly together, which is a very good thing," says Oleg Naumov, a member of the foreign affairs commission of the state Duma, the lower house of parliament. "But presidents come and go. Treaties last. Today there is a legal vacuum in the world, and it must soon be filled with something reliable."
Late last year, the US announced its unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which Russia has always regarded as the keystone of nuclear stability. Mr. Bush has argued that the accord was a "cold war relic" binding America's hands in a time when terror threats underscore the need for missile defense.
In general, the Republican administration believes that arms-control treaties are unnecessary impediments between friendly nations.
Instead of an anticipated storm of displeasure from Moscow, Mr. Putin reacted calmly to the US announcement, calling it "a mistake" but agreeing that it does not immediately compromise Russia's security. "Putin is very flexible, and he reflects a willingness to come to a whole new deal," says Alexander Kaladin, an expert with the semi-official Center for Disarmament Issues in Moscow. "But the bottom line is that we expect the ABM Treaty to be replaced with something that is suited to the new times. Russia is waiting."
The Kremlin hopes to nail down at least two new treaties this year, experts say: First, the verbal deal between Putin and Bush to slash strategic nuclear missile forces to about 2,000 warheads should be codified as a set of mutual legal obligations, complete with a mechanism for verification. Second, the Kremlin wants a new document regulating the relationship between offensive and defensive weapons, to replace the ABM treaty, perhaps by the time of Bush's planned mid-2002 visit to Russia.
"If the old treaties were outdated, then let's replace them with relevant ones," says Mr. Naumov. "But we must have firm controls on the number of strategic weapons, and that must be clearly balanced with the development of antimissile weapons. You cannot assure global stability just on the basis of a handshake."
Many Russian experts recall an earlier period of flux in big power relations in the mid-1980s, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was calling for sweeping reductions in nuclear arsenals and an end to the 40-year cold war standoff. At the time, US President Ronald Reagan rebuffed Soviet disarmament fervor by citing the old Russian proverb, "Doveryai no proveryai" - trust, but verify."
"That was just straight wisdom, which applies at all times," says Sergei Kazyonnov, an analyst with the Institute of National Security, an independent Moscow think tank. "People in Moscow are sure the U.S. will reassess its own interests, and we will get a new process of arms control."
Russian leaders fear that once the international war on terrorism winds down, the US may lose interest in negotiating with Russia. But an even bigger worry is that Russia's military brass, political elite and public will turn against Putin's Westward-tilting policies if they see no solid results.
"Russian propaganda and diplomacy have been shouting for years that the ABM treaty was untouchable," says Andrei Piont-kovsky, an independent political analyst. "Putin has made a brave U-turn and taken a new course. But to the people it looks like a betrayal of Russia's national interests and values, because that's what they've always been told."
In the long run, Putin hopes that by drawing Russia into the Western system, it will become linked by a million threads of commerce, investment, shared perceptions, political cooperation, and personal relations. But his policies may need help to survive in the short haul.
"Bush always makes the point that the US needs no arms control treaties with Britain, or France, because they are friends. But this argument cannot work when we're talking about Russia," says Alexander Konovalov, director of the Institute of Strategic Assessments, an independent think tank. "For Russia, the strategic relationship is not just a cold war relic. It remains the basic way we define our position in the world. Without giving it a reliable new legal shape, we'll continue to have trouble integrating with the West in every other way."