MOSCOW Russia and Italy ramped up their strategic cooperation on energy as Prime Minister Mario Monti made his first visit to the world's largest oil-producing nation on Monday to refresh ties that were typically warm under his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi.
Technocrat premier Monti met Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow and was due to discuss plans for a major Russian gas export pipeline project to serve southern Europe at talks with President Vladimir Putin in Sochi later.
The meeting, at Putin's summer retreat in the Black Sea resort, was also expected to address international issues, including the deepening crisis in Syria.
South Stream, a Russian-backed pipeline project to ship gas from the Caspian region, is expected to cost more than 15 billion euros ($18 billion) and export 63 billion cubic meters of gas to southern Europe from 2015.
A final investment decision on South Stream, a rival to a European Union-backed project called Nabucco, is expected in November, with construction to start in December, the Kremlin said ahead of Monti's visit.
Project partner Eni said this month that it expected the final investment decision for South Stream in late 2012 or early 2013.
The South Stream consortium also includes France's EDF and Germany's Wintershall.
Eni also signed an exploration loan facility agreement on Monday with state-owned Russian oil major Rosneft. The agreement seals a major offshore exploration partnership that the two companies struck in April for projects in the Barents and Black seas.
(Reporting by Douglas Busvine; Additional reporting by Philip Baillie in Milan; Editing by David Goodman)