The signing in Vilnius of the Status of Forces Agreement by Russia and NATO comes at the alliance's first-ever ministerial meeting on the soil of a former Soviet republic.
Although the accord is aimed at boosting military cooperation between NATO and Russia, there are signs that Moscow is still nervous about the recent expansion of the alliance to Russia's borders.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said at today's signing ceremony that the accord should alleviate those concerns.
"I am pleased to welcome what is a concrete milestone in practical NATO-Russia cooperation: The signature, in a moment, by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of the Partnership for Peace Status of Forces Agreement," de Hoop Scheffer said.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai explained that the agreement will make it easier to conduct joint training exercises in Russia or in NATO countries. He also suggested it could help NATO to transport troops, equipment, and supplies to Afghanistan.
"This Status of Forces Agreement is a technical legal document. NATO has had one since 1951. What it does is allow for the transit and training of foreign forces on other countries' soil," Appathurai said. "In other words, all NATO nations have a Status of Forces agreement which governs the presence of other countries' soldiers, their legal status, the arrangements for financing or even taxes, the judicial protections that they have -- and what they don't have, etc."
Although the Russian parliament still must approve the accord, Appathurai said NATO has already been working with Moscow on the creation of a Russian peacekeeping force.
"[The Status of Forces Agreement] will not immediately enter into force. It has to be ratified by the Duma. There is an internal Russian process that has to take place," Appathurai said. "We don't expect any trouble with it. But it's not that it enters into force the moment it is signed. There remains some more technical steps to follow. But this will happen very, very quickly. And it certainly will not hold up any cooperation that we are doing now. Indeed, I believe a SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) team from our military headquarters is, even now, observing the new Russian peacekeeping brigade that is just about to enter into force and which has, as one of its orientations, to be able to work with NATO in joint peacekeeping efforts."
"I am pleased to welcome what is a concrete milestone in practical NATO-Russia cooperation: The signature...by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of the Partnership for Peace Status of Forces Agreement." -- de Hoop Scheffer
Meanwhile, the NATO secretary-general also has been praising the work of the so-called NATO-Russia Council -- a formal channel of political communication between Moscow and NATO.
"The NATO-Russia Council has become an effective forum for concrete, practical cooperation," de Hoop Scheffer said. "But, equally important, is its role as a forum for political dialogue where we can discuss openly -- also when we might not entirely agree -- in a spirit of true partnership and seek ever-greater opportunities for common approaches to common challenges."
One divisive issue emerged just moments after Foreign Minister Lavrov signed the Status of Forces Agreement.
Lavrov told journalists in Vilnius that Moscow rejects recent calls by the United States and European Union for political change in Belarus. Lavrov said the process of democratic reform cannot be imposed upon a country from outside.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice late last night told CNN that Belarus is Europe's "last dictatorship."
"I would hope that particularly in Belarus, which is really the last remaining true dictatorship in the heart of Europe, that you would begin to see some democratic development," Rice said.
A week earlier, the European Union also issued a strongly worded statement condemning the Belarusian leadership. The 15 April statement said the EU cannot allow a country on its borders to continue "languishing in dictatorship."
Lavrov today also rejected NATO calls for a rapid withdrawal of Russian bases from Georgia. He said Moscow is still in negotiations on the issue with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
In Vilnius, Ukraine's possible entry into NATO was on the agenda. But alliance officials said the gathered foreign ministers would not yet set a target entry date for fear of annoying Russia.