Putin to become guest of honor at India's Republic Day

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in India Thursday, hoping to use the two nations' decades-long friendship to push for deals in civilian nuclear cooperation, military hardware and trade expansion between the booming economies.

Putin, who will be the guest of honor at India's Jan. 26 Republic Day celebrations during his two-day visit, is looking to cash in on Cold War ties that bound the two countries for years - but then slackened as India's burgeoning market attracted other players.

India and Russia signaled their intent to forge ahead with military ties ahead of Putin's visit with two new arms deals, an agreement allowing the licensed production of Russian aircraft engines in India, and another for the joint development of a military transport plane.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and his Indian counterpart A. K. Antony signed the four agreements in New Delhi on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh - who is expected to hold talks and sign agreements with the Russian president for cooperation in defense, science and technology and space later Thursday - welcomed Putin and his wife Lyudmila on their arrival at Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport.

India was a key customer of Soviet weapons, purchasing billions of dollars' (euros') worth of military hardware, and has since become the world's foremost buyer of military equipment.

"The development of a close and trusting relationship with India is a top priority for Russia's foreign policy," Ivanov said after the agreements were signed.

A key element of their relationship was rooted in an unwritten code: that India would buy enormous amounts of Soviet military hardware, and Moscow would not supply defense equipment to India's neighboring archrival, Pakistan.

Russian politicians warned there could be consequences if India shops elsewhere.

"I believe this situation could stay, but only on condition that India, in its turn, will continue to view Russia as the main source of weapons," Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Russian parliament's foreign affairs committee, told The Associated Press.

Pakistan "has shown a huge interest in the development of military-technical cooperation with Russia," he said.

"If we see other trends here, see that India is refocusing to other suppliers, European or American ... Russia in turn will see new opportunities open for cooperation with other nations in the region," Kosachev said, in a clear reference to Pakistan.

The tacit agreement could be tested by India's planned purchase of 126 fighter jets, a deal worth US$6.5 billion to US$10 billion (EUR 5.4 billion to EUR 8.3 billion). India is considering buying the jets from Russia or one of its stiff competitors, such as Sweden and the United States.

Russia's state-owned aircraft company, MiG, "is going to participate in that (India's international bidding process) in the most active way," Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was quoted as saying by the Interfax-Military news agency.

"We would like to push the MiG-35," said Russia's ambassador to India, Vyacheslav I. Trubnikov, referring to the latest fighter jet in Russia's stable. "This would be a real milestone in our military relations."

For years during the Cold War, the diplomatic map was clear: India and the Soviet Union were close allies, while the United States tilted toward Pakistan.

But times have changed. Washington and New Delhi now share a warm relationship, underscored by a landmark civilian nuclear cooperation deal reached last year.

The deal gives India, with its energy-desperate economy, access to American nuclear technology and equipment it was long denied because it is not a signatory of the international Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The deal appears to give U.S. companies a strong position in India, but Trubnikov described nuclear cooperation as "the most important issue on the agenda during President Putin's visit."

The two countries' nuclear ties are well-entrenched: Russia is helping India build two 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactors in the southern town of Kudankulam - assistance that Washington has frowned upon, the AP says.

And last year, when uranium supplies ran precariously low at India's Tarapore nuclear power plant, Russia supplied 60 tons, again brushing aside U.S. objections.

"We hope a clear road map for cooperation in peaceful civilian nuclear energy will emerge from the president's visit," Trubnikov told The Associated Press.

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