Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to India has underscored Moscow's willingness to continue its nuclear cooperation with New Delhi, while strengthening Indo-Russian defense ties. Mr Putin's unprecedented visit to the center of India's nuclear weaponization program -- Bhabha Atomic Research Center - was perceived "like a blessing from the top for Indo-Russian nuclear ties." The two countries also signed a memorandum of understanding expanding cooperation in peaceful nuclear energy. Details were not forthcoming, but The Hindu quoted sources saying the memorandum "is a Russian commitment to contribute to India's growing nuclear energy requirements."

Speaking earlier to India Today Mr. Putin said Russia has been working "very fruitfully with India in the atomic energy sector …on peaceful nuclear technologies," emphasizing that "all Russia's [nuclear] plans with India are in strict keeping with its commitments under relevant international agreements.'' He added that it would be the "right thing" for India to "regulate all its nuclear issues…especially with the IAEA." A nuclear energy installation in southern India marks the centerpiece of this "fruitful" cooperation. India has accepted IAEA safeguards for the plant. Russia will provide the necessary technical assistance and nuclear fuel for two light-water reactors. Construction is scheduled to begin February 2001.

Russia is currently the only nuclear-weapon state actively cooperating with India's atomic energy sector, without insisting on full-scope safeguards. New Delhi is open to facility-specific safeguards, but refuses to consent to full-scope safeguards, which would allow IAEA inspection of all present and future fissionable material in India, to verify peaceful uses of nuclear technology.

On India's nuclear ambitions, Mr. Putin told the Indian parliament ''We believe that India will continue to look for ways to move toward nuclear nonproliferation, taking into account its own national interests." Earlier, he cautioned against "hasty decisions" and explained, "we don't consider that new nuclear powers have emerged on the world scene, and we don't think that [recognition of nuclear status] would have any beneficial consequences for the states that want this recognition."

During Mr. Putin's visit Russia and India signed defense procurement agreements reportedly worth $3 billion. An agreement was also reached on the lease of four Russian TU-22 Backfire bombers, fitted with air-to-ground 300-km range missiles.

Compared to these defense agreements, the understanding on nuclear cooperation fell below Indian expectations. Government officials and Indian scientists had hoped that the visit would substantially extend nuclear cooperation with an official agreement. The Strategic Partnership Declaration leant little substance to the nuclear dimension of Indo-Russian relationship. It calls for "general and complete disarmament, systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating these weapons, nuclear non-proliferation," and enhanced cooperation "in the peaceful use of nuclear energy and the peaceful use of outer space."