NOVO-OGARYOVO, Russia (Reuters) - Russia said on Thursday it was ready to consider helping Venezuela develop a peaceful nuclear energy program, a gesture that will displease Washington as two of its sharpest critics draw closer.
“We are all ready to look at the possibility of operating in the sphere of peaceful atomic energy,” Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said as he welcomed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for late-evening talks at his residence on the outskirts of Moscow.
Nuclear energy is a sensitive issue between the United States and Russia, which this week forced the scrapping of an international meeting to discuss sanctions against Iran over its atomic program.
Russia has stepped up cooperation with Venezuela, an arch-foe of Washington, since coming under strong U.S. condemnation for fighting a war against Georgia last month.
Russia this month sent strategic bomber planes on a trip to Venezuela, their furthest mission since the Cold War. Though capable of carrying nuclear missiles, they did not do so.
Putin noted that Russia also has warships en route to the Caribbean for joint military exercises between the two nations.
The maneuvers represent a show of strength in the United States’ backyard, and a pointed rejoinder to the deployment of U.S. naval vessels in the Black Sea, where they delivered humanitarian aid to Georgia.
Chavez — who called Putin “friend Vladimir,” shook hands warmly and shared a joke with him — hopes to deepen military ties during his two-day visit. Putin said Russia was ready to consider further arms sales to Venezuela, adding that Moscow was paying greater attention to the entire region.
“Latin America is becoming a very important link in the chain of the new multi-polar world that is taking shape and we will pay more and more attention to this direction of our economic and foreign policy,” he said.
In the past two years, 12 arms contracts worth a total of $4.4 billion have been signed by Russia and Venezuela, a Kremlin source said. Russia has also decided to offer Venezuela a $1 billion credit to buy more arms, the source said.
Russian news agencies have said the oil-rich country showed interest in buying submarines, anti-aircraft weapons and military planes.
The United States and the European Union are reliant on oil and gas imports from Venezuela and Russia, another sphere in which Putin announced further cooperation.
“I am very pleased to note the launch of the first Gazprom drilling rig in the Venezuelan gulf is planned for the end of October,” Putin said.
The Kremlin source said cooperation in the energy and mining sectors would also be a major topic during the talks. Russian energy and mining majors such as Gazprom, Lukoil, TNK-BP and Rusal are already operating in Venezuela.
“Cooperation in the energy sector and mining remains the top priority in the economic cooperation,” the source said.
Writing by Conor Sweeney; Editing by Mark Trevelyan