MOSCOW -- A slow thaw of 33 years of accumulated ice between Moscow and Islamabad began Wednesday with smiling flattery from Russia's president and a complimentary joke from Pakistan's leader.
The meeting between Russian and Pakistani presidents in the Kremlin was the first in decades. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin smiled, shook hands and called President Pervez Musharraf a successful army officer and politician, and a tough man who understood the world.
Musharraf joked that he envied the popularity that inspired a hit song about Putin in Russia. "No one sings pop songs about me," Musharraf said.
After the presidents talked for two hours, the sides signed several agreements to cooperate in fighting terrorism, expand their meager trade and improve diplomatic and cultural ties. In a later meeting with businessmen, Musharraf urged Russian business to participate in the privatization of Pakistan's state oil and gas company.
Relations between the two countries have been frosty for decades, with Moscow and Islamabad settling on opposite sides of a geopolitical divide. Russia is close to Pakistan's foe, India. Pakistan has historically been an ally of the United States, and it was close to the U.S.-backed moujahedeen who fought the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In the 1990s, Pakistan supported the Taliban in Afghanistan while Russia sent arms to the opposing Northern Alliance.
Putin called Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on the eve of his meeting with Musharraf, and declared that Russia could improve relations with Pakistan without damaging its alliances in the region.
"I am sure we have a sound basis to promote dialogue without harming our traditional partners," Putin said. "I am sure that today's visit can create new groundwork, new conditions for furthering our relations. It will help us better coordinate the efforts of our two countries in addressing international questions, including in the anti-terror coalition."
Musharraf said he would like to "write a new book on bilateral relations."
The leaders set up a working group to tackle terrorism, a step forward after Putin pointedly criticized Pakistan's approach to fighting it last year. In late November, Putin said Russia thought that Osama bin Laden was hiding out along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In December, Putin called on Pakistan to eliminate terrorists on its territory and said he was concerned that extremists in Pakistan might get weapons of mass destruction.
On Wednesday, Putin struck a more conciliatory note, wishing Musharraf success in combating terrorism.
With the fall of the Taliban, Pakistani and Russian interests in Afghanistan have moved closer. Both sides seek a stable Afghanistan that is developing economically.
The two countries also share similar views on Iraq, with both presidents agreeing that the U.N. Security Council should take the lead in resolving whether Baghdad has weapons of mass destruction.
Musharraf expressed satisfaction with the "productive and sincere talks" he had with Putin. He brushed aside past frictions and invited Putin to Islamabad.
Despite Wednesday's smiles, analysts were skeptical of any dramatic expansion of ties.
"Russia is not likely to benefit from closer relations with Pakistan in any way," said Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Russian office of the Center for Defense Information, a U.S.-based think tank.
"So far, neither of the two countries can see a specific goal that they could be pursuing in relations with one another. The visit is about studying the potential development of relations. It is about everything in general and nothing specific: There is a field for the game, but it still remains to be seen what game the two will be playing."
Safranchuk said the visit underscored Putin's pragmatic and independent approach.
"With Musharraf in Moscow, Putin demonstrates that Russia remains a global-scale player, and it will tread wherever it thinks fit and not only where it is told," he said.