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Russia: Putin's Visit To India Expected To Strengthen An Already-Warm Friendship

Russia's President Vladimir Putin arrives today in India for a three-day visit during which traditional allies Moscow and New Delhi are likely to outline their common security and political concerns. Putin is also expected to sign several accords, including a number of new military deals.

Prague, 3 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's President Vladimir Putin arrives today in the Indian capital New Delhi for a three-day official visit that will include talks with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Putin's India visit is the second leg of a tour that began this on 1 December in China and will take him to Kyrgyzstan on 5 December.

While in New Delhi, Putin and Vajpayee are expected to discuss the fight against international terrorism, the situations in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and the role of the United Nations. Russian and Indian officials say Putin and Vajpayee will also sign declarations on economic, scientific, and technological cooperation as well as their countries' strategic partnership.

Ivan Safranchuk is the director of the Moscow office of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information. He told RFE/RL that Putin's visit is intended to show that Russia remains a global power, whose pro-Western foreign policy does not undermine ties with its "traditional friends." "I think Russia is interested in having an Indian voice on the Russian side in discussing global security matters, like for example international terrorism. And Russian and Indian positions on international terrorism are coinciding to a great extent. Both countries [consider] themselves to be victims of international terrorism -- India in Kashmir, and Russia in Chechnya."

Hasan-Askari Rizvi, an independent analyst based in Pakistan, agreed. He said Putin's visit -- the first to India since 11 September -- is part of Moscow's effort to "rope in" the countries that might oppose certain U.S. policy decisions as a way of putting a check on Washington's perceived unilateralism. Rizvi said Islamabad, for one, will be watching Putin's New Delhi visit carefully. "Pakistan has [a lot of] doubts about Putin's visit to India. And [Pakistan] thinks that perhaps [Putin and Vajpayee] may agree on certain things that may be against Pakistan. So, to me, the overall tenor and overall direction of analysis in Pakistan is that this visit will be negative, if not hostile [in relation to Pakistan]."

India's Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal yesterday told journalists the two sides will discuss what New Delhi calls Pakistan's support of cross-border terrorism in Indian Kashmir, as there was a "good meeting of minds" on the subject, Reuters reported.

Another likely line of discussion will be the activities of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. India has shown interest in potentially joining the regional group, which currently comprises Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

According to India's "The Hindu" newspaper, Putin's meetings with Indian officials are also expected to address concerns over limited bilateral trade and "generally sluggish" commercial relations. Ilya Klebanov, Russia's minister of industry, science, and technology, laid the groundwork for agreements in this area during a visit to India late last month.

Safranchuk, however, says the main focus of cooperation talks remains political. "Economic ties [between Moscow and New Delhi] are not very intensive, and I don't think there's much opportunity for growth because both India and Russia are competing for foreign investments. And they compete [in terms of foreign investment] more than they can cooperate. The trade between the two countries is not great and I think is unlikely to grow."

Arms trade, however, is seen as one area with great potential for development. Indian media report that Moscow and New Delhi are discussing the sale of a Russian aircraft carrier and nuclear submarine to India. The two sides are also discussing increasing the number of sophisticated Russian Su-30 MKI fighter planes that India is licensed to produce.

Vadim Kozyulin, a research associate at the Moscow-based Center for Policy Studies, told RFE/RL: "India is recognized by Russia as a strategic partner. It's the only country which has a 10-year agreement with Russia for cooperation in the military sphere. And of course every visit of such rank -- every summit between our leaders -- is expected to be some kind of a breakthrough for Russian arms trade and for the Russian arms industry in particular."

Moscow, which does not see India as a potential strategic threat, has already sold some of its most sophisticated weaponry to its South Asian ally. Certain weapons, Kozyulin said, have even been designed especially for the Indian Army, like the Su-30 planes, which are being upgraded according to Indian requirements. "The most [anticipated] contract which is expected to be signed during this summit is a deal for supply of the aircraft carrier 'Admiral Gorshkov.' This deal has been under discussion for about [three] years between the Indian and Russian military and arms traders. Maybe there is a chance that it will be signed during this visit."

The Russian arms industry, Kozyulin stressed, is especially anxious to see the deal go through. Although the decommissioned carrier is being given to India for free, outfitting and equipment costs are expected to earn Russia millions of dollars.

P.R. Chari is the director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi. He said: "The Russians agreed to transfer this aircraft carrier, the 'Admiral Gorshkov,' free of charge -- provided India buys a number of aircraft which will be used on this particular aircraft carrier. I have a feeling this may be decided finally during this visit."

Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes last weekend appeared to pour cold water on the deal, saying Putin's visit to New Delhi will not see the much-awaited hand-over of the "Admiral Gorshkov" to the Indian Navy. But India's naval chief, Admiral Madhvendra Singh, yesterday said negotiations were still being conducted on the carrier deal. He refused to comment, however, on a report published in the "Indian Express" newspaper saying Moscow has agreed to lease New Delhi an Akula-class nuclear submarine which can carry nuclear-capable Klub-class cruise missiles with a 300-kilometer range.