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Will Manmohan-Vladimir script a new era of India-Russia bonhomie?

Russian President Vladimir Putin will be having a bilateral meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the margins of the 5th Brics summit in Durban on 27 March.

Prime Minister Singh today confirmed that he would be holding a bilateral meeting with Putin. In a statement prior to his departure for the Brics summit, Singh said as follows: "I will also take the opportunity of my visit to hold substantive bilateral meetings with other Brics leaders… I also intend to review with President Putin of Russia the progress in India-Russia relations after the successful Summit in Delhi in December 2012."

The two sides have slotted 40 to 60 minutes for the meeting between the two principals. The exact venue of the meeting has been left to the last-minute logistics. The agenda of the Putin-Singh meeting was fine tuned by senior officials of the two sides during the annual foreign office consultations in Moscow on 19 March 2013, a key official involved in the India-Russian dynamics told this writer today.

Strengthening ties. Image courtesy PIB

Strengthening ties. Image courtesy PIB

This meeting discussed the issues to be taken up at the 14th annual India-Russian summit later this year but did not consider the dates for the summit to be held in Moscow. Many important bilateral meetings are coming up around the middle of this year and the third quarter and the dates and possible agenda of the 14th annual summit would be worked out then.

"Prime Minister Singh and President Putin will discuss all issues of mutual interest – bilateral, regional and international. This will be a significant meeting where the two leaders will review the progress of the bilateral engagement after their the India-Russian 13th annual summit in New Delhi on 24 December 2012 and flag issues that need to be put on fast track in the coming months,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Three Indian ministers to visit Russia

The Putin-Singh meeting at Durban is not aimed at yielding agreements. Rather its aim is to choreograph a more intensive India-Russian synergy and shepherd the bilateral relations to a new era wherein the focus is on concrete deliverables within this year.

As part of this plan, three senior Indian cabinet ministers will be undertaking separate bilateral visits to Russia next month. Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid and Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma will be visiting Moscow next month. The three visits are likely to throw up bilateral agreements as well.

In fact, Sharma is expected to visit Russia twice more later this year after his April visit. The Putin-Singh meeting is expected to discuss salient features of the upcoming ministerial visits from India to Russia.

Indo-Russian trade should be worth $100 billion

One of the prime focus areas of the upcoming Putin-Singh meeting is to give a major thrust to the Indo-Russian bilateral trade which is far below its true potential. According to Syed Akbaruddin, spokesman of the Indian foreign office and joint secretary-incharge of the External Publicity division of the Ministry of External Affairs, Indo-Russian bilateral trade stood at $ 8.9 billion, marginally above from a figure of $ 7.5 billion in 2009. In 2009, the two sides set the target of achieving $ 20 billion in bilateral trade by 2015.

The 19 March annual foreign office consultations meeting in Moscow discussed at length the issue of below-par Indo-Russian trade. Senior officials from the two sides said such a lowly figure was neither reflective of the close ties between the two trillion dollar economies nor of the huge potential that has gone untapped for decades.

Senior Indian and Russian officials at the meeting stressed the need of setting their sights on a much loftier goal of taking their bilateral trade to $ 100 billion and bring Indo-Russian trade relations at par with India-China and Indo-American trade ties. They agreed that this talk of raising the Indo-Russian trade to the $ 100 billion mark was not all fluff and was very much achievable.

The Putin-Singh meeting will discuss ways and means of catalyzing their bilateral trade and this is the reason why the Indian commerce and industry minister will be undertaking several trips to Russia in the coming months.

Sistema and Kudankulam woes are over

The importance of the upcoming 27 March Putin-Singh meeting stems from the fact that the two sides have done exhaustive preparations for it even though it won’t be treated as the 14th annual summit between the two nations. Three cabinet ministers and top officials are likely to assist Manmohan Singh for this meeting.

Interestingly, the two leaders would be meeting after a gap of about three months, but this time in far more relaxed atmosphere. “That is because while Manmohan Singh and Vladimir Putin met last year under the shadow of Sistema and Kudankulam woes, now these issues are behind us,” the Indian official observed.

Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project Unit 1 is about to be commissioned “anytime now”, the second unit will be operational in a few months while the protests by environmental activists have petered out, the official explained. The Sistema issue has been resolved to the satisfaction of the Russian company.

Kudankulam 3 & 4

Perhaps the most important point of discussion during the Putin-Singh meeting would be to put negotiations on third and fourth units of the KNPP on fast track. India has planned six units of KNPP, each having a capacity of 1000 mw. India is keen on Russian cooperation in setting up the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th units as well after the successful near-completion of the 1st and 2nd units.

The writer is a Firstpost columnist and a strategic affairs analyst who can be reached at bhootnath004@yahoo.com.