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In Latin America, Putin to counter Russia’s growing isolation

Russian President Vladimir Putin will on Friday begin an ambitious Latin America tour that will take him to Cuba, Argentina and Brazil as he seeks to shore up support for his policies amid a showdown with the West.

During a six-day tour Putin will meet with the father of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, take part in a summit of the BRICS group of emerging economies and attend the World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro.

The Kremlin strongman’s trip will take place against the backdrop of an unrelenting crisis in ties with the West over Ukraine where clashes between government forces and separatists have claimed nearly 500 lives.

Analysts say Putin will use his talks in Latin America to thumb his nose at Brussels and Washington which have slapped sanctions on some of his closest allies over Moscow’s takeover of Crimea and support for Ukrainian separatists.

But it will also be in line with the Kremlin drive to promote a multi-polar world order after Putin dismantled a “reset” in ties with Washington after returning to the Kremlin for a third term in 2012.

He has tasked his diplomats with ramping up ties with developing nations and sought to play Europe against the United States.

“The tour is aimed at strengthening a pivot from North America to Latin America,” said Vladimir Orlov, head of the PIR centre, a Moscow think-tank, stressing that Russia was being sidelined in global politics.

It was only logical, he added, that now “we are turning to our natural partners, who are not biased against Russia, with even more attention and deference.”

Putin will begin his tour by visiting Cuba where he will discuss cooperation in energy, transport, aviation and space with President Raul Castro, the Kremlin said.

Over the past years Moscow has sought to revive ties with the Communist-run island, whose economy has been saddled with a US economic embargo since 1962.

Ahead of the visit, Russia wrote off 90 percent of Cuba’s Soviet-era debt of more than $35 billion (26 billion euros) and said the rest would be earmarked for investment projects in Cuba.

Vladimir Davydov, director of the Latin America Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said the two countries may sign energy deals involving state oil firm Rosneft.

– Castro’s sympathetic ear –

Putin is also set to meet Fidel Castro, an encounter that will be rich in symbolism.

Havana has sided with its old ally Russia in the Ukraine conflict, and the Russian strongman, whose country faces the threat of new Western sanctions, is expected to get a sympathetic ear from the 87-year-old comandante.

“Fidel is the last of the Mohicans with whom Putin can discuss the global order of the present and the future,” said Orlov.

From Cuba, Putin will travel on Saturday to Buenos Aires for trade and energy talks with Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, before moving on to Brazil for a four-day visit.

He will meet local businessmen as he seeks investment for his country’s embattled economy and take part in a meeting of leaders of Brazil, India, China and South Africa on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“The leaders of BRICS countries will discuss political coordination and issues of global management,” the Kremlin said, noting that the summit will establish a development bank.

Davydov of the Latin America Institute said the meeting will be instrumental in facilitating stability in international relations.

“The BRICS are five key civilisations that account for 43 percent of the population,” he said.

The highlight of the trip’s final leg will be a handover ceremony at the end of the World Cup final, when Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will pass on responsibility for the tournament to Putin.

Russia will host the football extravaganza in 2018 and has pledged to spend billions of dollars on stadiums and infrastructure for the tournament.

Over the past years, both Putin and his Kremlin predecessor Dmitry Medvedev repeatedly visited Latin America in a bid to expand Moscow’s influence there.

The late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who was known for his virulent anti-US tirades, was a welcome guest in Russia.