Putin eyes Argentine energy in third stop of Latin American tour

BUENOS AIRES (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin is visiting Argentina Saturday on a tour aimed at tapping Latin American natural resources and increasing Moscow's regional influence amid a post-Cold War low in East-West relations.

Mr Putin said ahead of his visit he was keen to offer increased Russian investment and trade in exchange for oil and minerals, and analysts say he likely has his eye on Argentina's massive Vaca Muerta shale oil field, potentially one of the largest finds in history.

Argentine President Cristina Kirchner for her part could desperately use Russian investment at a time when her government is fighting to stay solvent, locked out of capital markets since defaulting on its debt in 2001.

Ms Kirchner will be looking to enlist Mr Putin's backing for her fight against hedge funds refusing to accept the restructuring of the country's defaulted debt.

A US court has ordered Argentina to pay the "holdout" funds more than US$1.3 billion (S$1.6 billion) by the end of the month, but the country is trying to negotiate a reprieve.

Mr Putin's push to court Latin American leaders comes as the United States is threatening new sanctions against Moscow for its takeover of Crimea and support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.

Mr Putin and Ms Kirchner will meet in the afternoon at the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, but neither side announced details.

Argentina said a dinner was planned with Bolivian President Evo Morales, as well as the leaders of Uruguay and Venezuela, Jose Mujica and Nicolas Maduro, all veteran leftists. But only Uruguay confirmed its head of state would attend.

Mr Putin's six-day trip will next take him to Brazil, where he will take part in a summit of the BRICS group of emerging countries - an agenda that neatly aligns with his push for a multipolar world at a time when the Ukraine crisis has dramatically increased tensions between Moscow and Washington.

There were distinct Cold War echoes in the former KGB spy's travel itinerary.

He launched his tour Friday in Russia's Cold War ally Cuba, where he met with President Raul Castro and his 87-year-old brother Fidel, father of the island's communist revolution, and visited a small cemetery that holds the remains of Soviet soldiers who died while stationed on the island during the Cold War.

He then made a surprise stop in Nicaragua for talks with President Daniel Ortega, a former guerrilla whose government was close to the Soviet Union during the Sandinista regime of the 1980s.

And Argentina is the home of Che Guevara, the most iconic figure of the revolutionary movement that aimed to install communist regimes across the developing world in the 20th century.

But Mr Putin also had plenty of modern-day business on his agenda. In Havana, he oversaw the signing of a dozen bilateral deals, including for oil exploration off the island's coast.

In Nicaragua, he vowed to strengthen economic ties with the Central American country, which earlier this month finalized the route for a planned alternative to the Panama Canal, a Chinese-backed plan that promises to reshape the global shipping industry.

On his Argentina stop, the two countries are expected to sign deals on cooperation in atomic energy - possibly including one for Russia to help build the South American country's fourth nuclear plant, the US$3-billion Atucha III reactor.

Media reports said Russian energy giant Gazprom was also in negotiations to partner up on Argentine projects with energy firm Wintershall, a subsidiary of Germany's BASF that is among the companies developing the Vaca Muerta field, which is estimated to contain the equivalent of 22.8 billion barrels of oil.

Wintershall, Argentina's fourth-largest natural gas producer, has 15 oil and gas projects in the country.

Mr Putin has invited Argentina to take a seat at the table when Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa - the so-called BRICS group - hold a summit next week in Brazil. In Brazil, Putin will also attend the World Cup final between Germany and Argentina on Sunday.

Moscow says he will likely also meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Brazil said Saturday that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko would also attend the match, raising the possibility of a tense encounter with his Russian counterpart amid a crisis between their two countries.