( AFP ) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was to meet Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Thursday during a visit expected to underline their critical stance towards the United States and possibly lead to new arms deals.
Arriving in Moscow for his second visit in less than a year, the Venezuelan leader had warm words for his Russian hosts.
"We came here with great hope, great faith for our cooperation and our union," Chavez said, voicing "optimism and happiness that we are on this land which is dear to us."
Ahead of his talks with the Russian president, Chavez was to kick off the visit by opening a cultural centre in Moscow, for which a large retinue of Venezuelan musicians and military officers assembled.
"He's the best president on the planet... There's nothing wrong with Russia being friends with leaders who are anti-American because the whole world is anti-American," Russian member of parliament Vladimir Zhirinovsky told journalists at the opening ceremony, referring to Chavez.
The visit by the vociferously anti-American Chavez underlined Russia's strained relationship with Washington ahead of talks between Putin and US President George W. Bush on July 1 and 2 at the home of Bush's father in Maine.
In Venezuela this week, two US companies, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips, pulled out of exploration ventures, reflecting deteriorating relations between the United States and Venezuela.
However, Moscow has sought to limit the potential for the visit by the Venezuelan leader to antagonise Washington, including the cancellation of plans for him to address parliament.
On Saturday, Chavez and Putin are to attend a horse race in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don.
After Russia, Chavez is due to visit Belarus and Iran, both of whose governments Washington views as outlaw regimes.
In Moscow, officials hope Chavez's visit will increase cooperation on energy and defence.
"During talks between the Venezuelan president and President Putin the main emphasis will be on questions of developing trade and economic relations," the RIA Novosti news agency quoted an unnamed Kremlin official as saying.
Last week, the Venezuelan leader said he might purchase Russian submarines but a deal has not so far been confirmed.
Last year, the Venezuelan leader signed deals with Russia worth three billion dollars (2.2 billion euros) for helicopter gunships, fighter planes and rifles.
On the energy front, Putin will seek Chavez's support for a Russian plan to host next year's meeting of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, part of efforts to create a gas exporters' cartel similar to the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Russia's Kommersant newspaper said.
The two sides are also likely to discuss plans for Russian gas giant Gazprom and oil giant Lukoil to develop projects in Venezuela, including a project to build a gas pipeline linking Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela, Kommersant said.