LISBON - Just getting the leaders of Russia and NATO around the table to talk about increased cooperation was progress barely two years after the Georgian war triggered a near freeze in relations.
In Lisbon, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and his NATO counterparts agreed to work together to fight piracy, terrorism, narcotics trafficking and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. But a much-vaunted agreement to cooperate on missile defense appears less conclusive that the alliance had initially hoped.
Medvedev also made clear that a threat by Republicans in the US Congress to hold up ratification of the START treaty on nuclear disarmament would be a new dampener to reviving relations between Moscow and Washington.
"That would be very unpleasant," Medvedev warned reporters in response to a question about a START delay. "If we fail to move this question forward the world will not become safer."
NATO leaders had been upbeat about the prospect of Russia agreeing to cooperate in a new multi-layered system of anti-missile defenses which the 28 North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations signed up on Friday.
"For the first time in history, NATO and Russia will be cooperating to defend themselves," NATO Secretary General Fogh Rasmussen said after the allies met with Medvedev.
"Starting today we will begin working on missile defense cooperation to protect our deployed troops on the ground and we will answer the questions that need answering for us to cooperate on territorial missile defense as well," he added in carefully chosen works which showed the limitations on the cooperation Medvedev had signed up to.
Russia had long been engaging in a cooperation project with NATO to improve so-called "battlefield missile defenses" against the risk of short-range attack to troops. Those talks had stalled after the August 2008 Georgian war but will now resume.
Territorial missile defense is a different issue involving US plans to include Europe in a global shield against long-range missile attack. Here Russia remains wary of NATO's intentions and agreed only to an assessment of the possible threats and "dialogue " leading up to a possible decision at meeting of defense ministers in June 2011.
Medvedev gave the NATO leader a stark warning about the dangers of pressing ahead with their plan, should those talks fail to produce a result that eases Russian concerns.
"If we fail to agree on missile defense, it could be a new arms race coming our way," he told a news conference.
Russia has long been suspicious of American-led plans for an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) shield, believing it could undermine the nuclear balance of power by giving the NATO the ability to neutralize its missiles. When the Bush administration first proposed basing elements of its ABM system in Poland and the Czech Republic, Moscow responded with fury -- threatening to re-target its nuclear weapons at the European nations.
Since coming to power last year, US President Barack Obama has modified the plan and sought to allay Russian concerns. Washington insists the defenses pose no threat to Russia's nuclear deterrent but are needed to defend Europe and North America against the danger of attack from Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East.
At the meeting in Lisbon, Medvedev at least agreed to talk about NATO's offer of cooperation in the development of the missile defenses. But he seemed far from convinced and Russia's ambassador to NATO on the eve of the summit suggested that the scale of the NATO plan continued to indicate a potential threat to Russia.
"The NATO gamekeepers invite the Russian bear to go hunting rabbits together. The bear doesn't understand: why do they have bear-hunting rifles?" Ambassador Dmitry Rogozin posted on his Twitter feed on the eve of the NATO summit.
Despite the nuanced Russian reaction to the missile plan, allied leaders were encouraged by agreements on another of other issues.
Moscow has widened a transit accord to allow NATO to transport non-lethal material to and from Afghanistan through Russian territory. The two sides will operate a new center for counter-narcotics training in an effort to help Afghanistan's neighbors stem the flow of heroin out of the country. Russia will consider helping the Afghan armed forces with helicopters and may play a greater role in maritime missions against terrorists in the Mediterranean or pirates off the coast of Somalia.
"I think that the cooperation with Russia will be a milestone along NATO's way," said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "You can see that a former military opponent is becoming a partner. You can call this change in the way we are cooperating historic."
Obama said NATO now sees "Russia as a partner not an adversary. " Even Medvedev acknowledged that, "talking about the current state of affairs, they are not bad."
The threat to the START deal however cast a shadow over the summit. Leader Republican Senator John Kyl has said the Congress does have time to ratify the treaty this year. If it is pushed back to January, the opposition Republicans, strengthened by last month's mid-term elections, will have more chances to vote down the treaty signed by Obama and Medvedev in April. The treaty would reduce the strategic nuclear weapons stockpiles of both nations.
"This is an issue of critical national security interest," Obama told a news conference in Lisbon, restating an appeal to the Republicans not to allow partisan politics to derail the treaty.
NATO allies backed Obama's appeal. In a joint statement with Medvedev, they urged the treaty's early ratification and entry into force.