« Back to articlePrint this article

Putin's visit: Defence, space top agenda

March 11, 2010 02:42 IST

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin comes here on Thursday for a visit lasting less than 24 hours, during which period Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is likely to request access to nuclear reprocessing technology, which the US remains hesitant about transferring to India.

Sources in the Indian and Russian establishments said a slew of agreements would be signed during the short visit, led by an Inter-Governmental Agreement on nuclear cooperation, as well as a related memorandum of understanding in technological and scientific cooperation.

Separately, not in the presence of the two PMs, leaders from both sides would sign an agreement fixing the price for the 'Admiral Gorshkov' aircraft carrier at $2.35 billion (Rs 10,700 crore), thereby ending the sometimes unseemly negotiations over six years, which often became a battleground in the media.

Both sides would also sign agreements on the fifth-generation 'stealth' aircraft being jointly produced by India and Russia in Russia, as well as those for creating a joint venture for a multi-role transport aircraft.

The accent on joint cooperation extends to space, with an agreement on detailed cooperation on the development of a new generation of satellites linked to the Russian Glonas navigation system.

The extremely short duration of the visit means there is no overt trade element, with business chambers being kept out and the India-Russia CEO Business Council — led by Reliance Industries Chairman Mukesh Ambani on the Indian side and Yevgeny Yevtushenkov of the Sistema/MTS mobile service provider on the Russian side — not meeting this time as they did on the margins of the PM's own trip to Moscow in December 2009.

However, an agreement at last on simplification of visa procedures between the two countries could mean both sides have resolved the prickly issue of 'domicile' — where Indians trying to illegally travel to the West would often use Russia as an intermediate country, provoking official discord — thereby becoming the stepping stone for both business travel and tourism.

Russian and Indian sources point out, however, that despite the lack of an overt business element, bilateral trade is touching $8 billion (Rs 36,400 crore) and within sneezing distance of the $10 billion (Rs 45,000 crore) target by the end of 2010.

In fact, separate commercial contracts for two more civil nuclear reactors of 1,000 Mw each would also be signed during the visit, for the Kudankulam site in Tamil Nadu, where Russia is already building two reactors and had promised to build another two. This brings the number of reactors at Kudankulam to six (at 1,000 Mw each). Another site, at Haripur in West Bengal, had already been allotted to the Russians, with the accompanying promise that they could build another six reactors there.

It is already clear, nevertheless, that the Putin visit will be remembered for Manmohan Singh's likely request that Russia provide nuclear processing technology for use in the safeguarded plants that India is planning to import from a number of countries, including the US and France, in the coming years.

The big question on everyone's lips today in Delhi is whether or not Putin would accede to the PM's request and reinforce the strategic partnership with India — the first in a string of strategic partnerships that Delhi signed with the rest of the world in the past decade.

The PM's request to Putin becomes more significant in the context of the prolonged negotiations between India and the Obama administration in the US on their own nuclear reprocessing agreement. Although differences are said to have narrowed considerably, strategic analysts are delighted at the fact that the Americans rolled back years of discrimination against India by signing the landmark nuclear deal with Delhi in 2008, while the Russians are completing the circle by providing technologies to India that will help reprocess spent fuel from civilian, internationally safeguarded reactors.

Russian sources note that Moscow had, in fact, already agreed to provide nuclear reprocessing and that the language of the Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA), initialled between the two PMs during Manmohan Singh's visit to Moscow in December – the same agreement will now be signed between the two sides — allows for its sale and transfer.

But, the Indian side seems nervous about the fact that the IGA language regarding the transfer of nuclear reprocessing technologies is somewhat vague, and that the possibility of denial could still exist. Indian sources said they want to plug every loophole and this is why the PM will likely make his unusual request to Putin.

The fact is, the Russian PM's visit is heavily loaded in favour of government-to-government business, with nuclear, defence and space hogging the agenda. Other agreements include two MoUs on cooperation in joint ventures in pharmaceuticals, and an agreement on standardisation in pharmaceuticals.

Commerce ministry sources said the two pacts on pharma products were aimed at the industry which had held its own despite the recession and grown to become India's largest export earner to Russia over the past two years ($298 million in 2007-8 and $326.69 million in 2008-9).

Fertilisers were the biggest import ($274 million in 2007-8 and $1,602 million in 2008-9), followed by mineral fuels ($478.5 million in 2008-9) and iron and steel ($532.8 million in 2008-9).

Nandan Unnikrishnan, Russia expert with the Observer Research Foundation, pointed out that unlike India's thriving, private-sector relationship with the US, the Indo-Russian relationship was almost entirely driven by the two governments.

"Everybody talks about the wonderful friendship with the Soviet Union and how Russia continues to play an important strategic role in the development of Indian defence, space and nuclear industry. But, unless both sides think of how to enthuse the private sector, whether in the joint exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbons, fertilizers, designing components in civilian aircraft, etc, the relationship will show a declining graph," Unnikrishnan said.

"Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Putin may believe that India and Russia are important for each other, but unless Delhi begins to change its mindset that Russia is a declining power and that two friends are better than one, the other of course being the US, ties with Moscow will remain unstable," he added.


Jyoti Malhotra in New Delhi
Source: source image