Putin visits India, eyes arms sales, trade and political ties

MOSCOW Mon Dec 24, 2012 3:08pm IST

1 of 2. Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh before a meeting at his residence in New Delhi December 24, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Mustafa Quraishi/Pool

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Arms sales will be on the agenda when Russian President Vladimir Putin visits India on Monday to court a country that has traditionally been a top client.

Putin's trip, his first to India since he started a new Kremlin six-year term in May, is a chance to reaffirm Russia's interest in India, long a regional ally and now a partner in the BRICS group of emerging market nations.

In an article for publication in the The Hindu on Monday, Putin stressed that "deepening friendship and cooperation with India is among the top priorities of our foreign policy".

"India and Russia show an example of responsible leadership and collective actions in the international arena," he wrote, a veiled swipe at the West and in particular the United States, whom Putin accuses of seeking to impose its will on the world.

Russian defence industry sources said the visit could produce deals on the sale of fighter jets and aircraft engines worth more than $7.5 billion. One said that could include the sale of 42 Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighters and a deal on the long-term supply of 970 warplane engines.

The Kremlin said it expected the signing of "a number of large contracts in the area of military-technical cooperation", a term referring to weapons sales, licensing and servicing.

However, warm ties dating back to the Soviet era have been complicated by recent Russian efforts to improve relations with Pakistan, one of Moscow's proxy enemies during the Soviet Union's war of occupation in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Relations between the world's second biggest arms exporter Russia and India, its largest buyer last year, have also run into sporadic problems including delays in the delivery of a reconditioned Soviet-built aircraft carrier, now expected late in 2013.

MILITARY MIGHT

India plans to spend about $100 billion over the next 10 years to upgrade its largely Soviet-era military equipment, as Asia's third largest economy looks to match its economic might with military power and warily eyes assertive Asian rival China.

Moscow has warm political ties with China, another ally in opposing U.S. clout and a key consumer of the oil and gas that drives Russia's economy, but is thought to also be wary of a faster-growing neighbour with nearly 10 times its population.

India relies on Russia for 60 percent of its arms purchases, but has diversified its suppliers in recent years.

Putin announced record arms sales this year but wants to minimise the effect of the loss of deals with Libya and of uncertainty about the future of longtime client Syria on Russia's defence industry, an important source of political support for him.

Putin, whose country took up the presidency of the G20 this month, also hopes for strong growth in overall trade with India.

In his article, he said the volume of bilateral trade with India was expected to reach a record $10 billion this year, after declining due to the global financial crisis, and set a target of doubling that to $20 billion by 2015.

For Putin, who will meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, President Pranab Mukherjee and senior lawmakers, India is the most distant destination since rumours of a back problem emerged after he was seen limping in September.

He had originally been expected to travel to India last month but the Kremlin has dismissed suggestions he has serious health problems, and Putin implied last week that such talk was politically motivated.

(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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