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Latin America will be a priority, Putin says

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin vowed Thursday to make relations with Latin America a top foreign policy priority, a pledge backed by the first Russian naval deployment to the Caribbean since the Cold War.

Putin greeted Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, on his second trip to Russia in just over two months, with offers to discuss further arms sales to Venezuela and possibly help it develop nuclear energy.

Chavez's visit takes place as a Russian naval squadron sails to Venezuela, across the Caribbean Sea from the United States, in a pointed response to what the Kremlin has cast as threatening U.S. encroachment near its own borders.

Both men suggested their countries are working to decrease U.S. global influence.

“Latin America is becoming a noticeable link in the chain of the multi-polar world that is forming,” Putin said at his suburban residence at the start of his talks with Chavez. “We will pay more and more attention to this vector of our economic and foreign policy.”

Putin did not mention any specifics of potential Russian-Venezuelan military cooperation in his opening remarks, but Russian news reports said that Venezuela could buy Russian air defense missiles and more Sukhoi fighter jets.

Earlier Thursday, a Kremlin official who spoke on customary condition of anonymity said that Russia would grant Venezuela a $1 billion credit for the purchase of Russian weaponry in an effort to help Venezuela revamp its military forces.

Russia has signed contracts worth more than $4.4 billion with Venezuela since 2005 to supply arms including fighter jets, helicopters, and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Putin did not specify what cooperation Russia could offer Venezuela in the nuclear field, but Russia is aggressively promoting itself as a builder of nuclear power plants and supplier of fuel to nations seeking nuclear energy.

Chavez, who addressed Putin as “my dear friend Vladimir,” said that stronger ties with Russia would help build a multi-polar world — a term Russia and Venezuela use to describe their shared opposition to the perceived U.S. global domination.

“I think that today more than ever before what you have said about a multi-polar world is becoming reality,” Chavez told Putin.

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