Defense Secretary William Cohen said he and his Russian counterpart "agreed to disagree" Tuesday on NATO expansion. But both men pledged to further reduce their arsenals of strategic weapons.

Russian Defense Minister Igor Rodionov, appearing with Cohen after their first-ever Pentagon meeting, issued a ringing endorsement of the START II treaty, which has not been ratified by the Russian parliament."I'm deeply convinced we can ensure the security of our country with a lesser number of missiles and warheads," Rodionov said. "We need to do it," he said of Russian ratification of the missile pact.

Asked about a Washington Times report Tuesday that he continues to oppose ratification, Rodionov said he has had doubts about the treaty but has come to see its benefits.

It appeared that NATO's near-certain expansion into countries of the former Soviet bloc remains a sore spot in U.S.-Russian relations.

Rodionov called the expansion "a mistake."

"We agreed to disagree," Cohen said.

On other topics, the two ministers appeared to have more common ground, smiling and appearing congenial throughout their news conference.

Asked about reports that Russian missiles had mistakenly gone on "combat status" recently, Rodionov said, "The safety of our nuclear arsenal will never decrease."

Cohen said he had discussed the issue with top U.S. military commanders and Rodionov. "I believe, based on these conversations, that the Russian Strategic Nuclear Forces are under secure control," he said.

The real need is that both sides reduce the number of their nuclear weapons, said Cohen.

Earlier this year, Presidents Clinton and Boris Yeltsin agreed to secure passage of the START II nuclear-missile treaty in the Russian parliament, a longtime Clinton goal.

It sets a warhead limit of 3,500 on each side, down from about 8,000; strips Russia of its most powerful weapon, the SS-18 missile, and permits it to build new missiles it cannot afford.

The two men signed an agreement calling for Lockheed Martin to build a plant in Perm, Russia, to destroy solid rocket propellant, rocket motor cases and missile canisters from 410 Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles. The $52.4 million contract is being paid through the Nunn-Lugar program that is helping former Soviet bloc states reduce their strategic offensive arms.

Rodionov brought with him a high-powered military team and was to attend Pentagon sessions on how to run a military in a democracy; how to recruit volunteers for the military; and how to run an officers' corps.