As External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna began his first official visit to Russia, Moscow sent a strong signal of increased importance it attaches to ties with New Delhi.

Mr. Krishna arrived here on Tuesday to co-chair the 15th session of the Indo-Russian Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technological and Cultural Cooperation scheduled for Wednesday and to prepare the ground for a bilateral summit when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits Russia next month.

Days before the session, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin appointed Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Sobyanin as the new chairman of the Commission for Russia. Though Mr. Sobyanin holds the same rank as his predecessor, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov, who co-chaired the Commission for five years, his cabinet weight is higher.

Mr. Sobyanin is effectively the No. 2 man in the government hierarchy after Mr. Putin. As chief of the government staff, he is Mr. Putin’s right-hand man, responsible for organising and coordinating the work, not only of the Cabinet but also of the Prime Minister. More importantly, Mr. Sobyanin is one of Mr. Putin’s most trusted allies, who headed the Kremlin administration for three years when Mr. Putin was President.

Mr. Sobyanin was named among a handful of likely successors to Mr. Putin when he was preparing to step down two years ago.

Mr. Sobyanin, 51, has the reputation of a tough and effective administrator who knows how to get things done, a great advantage in the Russian slow-moving bureaucratic system. In another plus for India, Mr. Sobyanin oversees relations with provinces, where lie main opportunities for Indian business in Russia.

It is hoped that the injection of new blood in the nodal agency for bilateral ties will give a much-needed push to trade and economic cooperation. Even as bilateral trade registered a double digit growth in recent years, it is yet to cross the $8-billion mark, a miserable figure compared to either country’s trade with China.

Indian Ambassador to Russia Prabhat Kumar says Indo-Russian trade will grow 15-20 per cent this year, despite the global crisis, and is well on target to reach $10 billion next year. There are conditions for further growth, he says. More Indian and Russian banks are setting up shop in each other’s countries, and transport links have substantially improved, with shipment time between India and Russia cut by half to 20-22 days.

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