India PM meets Putin with nuclear deal in doubt

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (right) and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meet in the Kremlin in Moscow on Monday, Oct 21, 2013. Mr Singh met Mr Putin on Monday amid signs that the two giants had failed to reach a breakthrough on a long
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (right) and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meet in the Kremlin in Moscow on Monday, Oct 21, 2013. Mr Singh met Mr Putin on Monday amid signs that the two giants had failed to reach a breakthrough on a long-delayed nuclear power deal. -- PHOTO: AFP

MOSCOW (AFP) - Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday amid signs that the two giants had failed to reach a breakthrough on a long-delayed nuclear power deal.

Singh is using one of his last major foreign trips as prime minister before 2014 general elections to seek resolutions to lingering issues with two of India's most important regional partners.

The 81-year-old prime minister will leave Russia for China on Tuesday in a bid to forge closer economic relations and ink a pact to ease tension along their disputed border in a remote Himalayan region.

"The scope of our relationship with Russia is unique, encompassing strong and growing cooperation in areas such as defence, nuclear energy, science and technology, hydrocarbons, trade and investment," Singh said in a statement before leaving India.

The two leaders were due to address reporters on Monday after completing their private talks at the Kremlin.

Singh's trip to Moscow was preceded by gruelling behind-the-scenes negotiations on the next phase of a Russian-built nuclear power plant project on India's south coast.

A historic deal for the Kudankulam plant was first signed in 1988 by then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

But the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia's subsequent years of economic mayhem meant that construction did not begin until 2002.

Work has been nearly completed on the first two units despite local protests that halted progress for six months in 2011-2012.

India now hopes to strike deals for an additional two reactors at the same location as it looks to meet surging electricity demand.

But the 2010 Fukushima nuclear power plant accident prompted India to adopt a strict new safety liability law that Russia believes should not be applied to this project since it was conceived in Soviet times.

Negotiations about how the dispute can be skirted in time for Singh's meeting with Putin have gone down to the wire.

Singh said before flying to Moscow that he was confident that contracts on the third and fourth reactors "would be finalised shortly."

Yet Moscow's Kommersant daily cited Indian sources as saying that "an agreement on the construction of the third and fourth reactors at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant will not be signed during this summit."

Indian media reports said that Singh and Putin - having failed to reach a Kudankulam breakthrough - would instead issue a joint statement on the need to boost Afghan security amid the ongoing drawdown there of US troops.

Singh told an audience of Moscow university students early on Monday that Afghan security was of vital importance "to both our countries."

A Kremlin statement issued prior to Singh's visit also made no mention of the Kudankulam negotiations while noting that military ties "remain one of the priorities in the Russo-Indian partnership."

Moscow news reports said the sides were discussing an agreement for Russia to upgrade four existing Indian diesel-electric submarines and lease out several more.

A Russian military source told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency that New Delhi was also interested in financing the construction of a nuclear-powered submarine that could be delivered to India in the years to come.