Modi meets Putin in Russia with eye on defence deals
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a visit that could see the two countries agree a number of defence and energy deals worth billions of dollars.
Hailing ties with "robust, reliable friend" Russia, Modi praised Putin's leadership, saying he had "elevated the country to a qualitatively new level" despite Moscow's confrontation with West.
Speaking at the start of the talks, Putin for his part said he hoped to discuss the "privileged strategic partnership" of the two countries that are members of the BRICS emerging market nations group.
Russia has for years been a key military supplier for Delhi although the United States last year surpassed it as India's leading defence partner, and trade volume also fell, amounting to just $9.5 billion in 2014.
However India eyes Moscow as a potential partner for infrastructure projects as the Modi government seeks to overhaul the country's railway network and build nuclear energy plants as part of the Make in India foreign investment drive.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Kremlin expected the talks between Putin and Modi to help ease the visa regime between their two countries.
The two leaders will also oversee the signing of agreements by Russia's state nuclear corporation Rosatom and railway monopoly Russian Railways, Peskov added without providing further details.
Ahead of the talks officials declined to discuss possible defence deals expected to be signed in Moscow, although media reported the two countries would be discussing some $7 billion worth of contracts on Thursday.
- S-400 deal close? -
A media report last week said that India's top acquisition body had cleared the purchase of Russia's most advanced S-400 air defence systems.
During the Cold War India was the Soviet Union's closest military ally and a major importer of its military hardware.
Dipankar Banerjee, a defence analyst at New Delhi-based think tank Forum for Strategic Initiatives, said India was "vulnerable to Pakistan and China both in terms of missile attacks and air strikes" and that the S-400 defence systems were "very desirable" despite a hefty price tag.
Indian firm Reliance Defence Limited said on Thursday it had decided to work with the Russian manufacturer of the S-400 "on the entire range of air defence missile and radar systems" that India needs.
It was not clear however whether the two companies were ready to reach a firm deal on the missiles.
Russian business daily Kommersant said this week that Putin's one-on-one talks with Modi would decide the fate of the deal as the two still needed to sort out pricing disagreements.
India could be in the market for as many as five systems, the paper said, quoting defence sources, with deals on Russian frigates and a helicopter-building joint venture also on the cards.
They could also announce the location of a new Russian nuclear energy plant in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, an extension of the Russian nuclear plant under construction in Kudankulam where one reactor is already in operation.
Modi is seeking to ramp up the country's nuclear energy use to meet the rising energy needs, with a programme for at least 12 new reactors, as well as reduce its heavy dependency on coal, the worst greenhouse gas producing fuel.
"Energy is a sphere where we can do much more," the Indian premier said in an interview to Russia's TASS state news agency this week.
The trip is Modi's first state visit to Russia since he became prime minister in 2014, but he and Putin have met several times at international events and even discussed the merits of yoga at a summit in the Russian city of Ufa last July.
© 2015 AFP