NATO signed a landmark military cooperation accord with Russia at a first-ever ministerial meeting of the alliance on ex-Soviet soil.
NATO chief de Hoop Scheffer and Russia's President Putin
The "status of forces agreement" between NATO and Moscow, signed Thursday in Vilnius, Lithuania, will make it easier for the two sides to organize joint exercises and training. It will also allow NATO troops to transit through Russian territory and vice versa.
NATO General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called the accord a "milestone," news agencies reported.
The landmark military cooperation highlights the progress made in strengthening ties between NATO and Russia. Relations between the two were transformed by the geopolitical changes after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
US Secretary of State Rice and NATO Secretary General Jaap e Hoop Scheffer at an earlier meeting
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov signed the accord with his NATO counterparts, including US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
For their part, NATO officials called the accord a key step forward in relations with Moscow. The talks were held in Lithuania, one of three ex-Soviet republics to join the alliance last year.
The agreement "is indeed a milestone of NATO-Russia cooperation. It is also a clear signal that the course of cooperation... is fixed and well on track," NATO Chief de Hoop Scheffer told news agencies.
NATO flags fly in the main square of the Old Town in Vilnius
A NATO spokesman said the accord, which will have to be ratified by the Russian parliament before entering into force, could for example be used to cover NATO troops heading for Afghanistan, where the alliance heads a peacekeeping force.
Further agenda points
Also on the agenda at the meeting were talks on a fast-track NATO membership for Ukraine. But NATO officials said the ministers would stop short of setting a target entry date, for fear of annoying Russia.
Putin, Rice met at the Kremlin
"NATO is an important forum for transatlantic dialogue on political issues, it is the premier forum," US Secretary of State Rice told reporters Wednesday, after visiting Moscow. During her visit, she criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin for having too much personal power.
NATO has made it clear that the victory of pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine's rerun presidential elections in December after a rigged first poll had boosted the membership chances of Kiev.
Other key items on the menu of the two-day informal talks include the future of alliance missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo -- as well as reflection on a possible NATO role in the Middle East.