Russian State Oil Company Rosneft, in Sudden Move, Sells Assets in Venezuela

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CARACAS, Venezuela — The Russian state-controlled oil firm Rosneft said Saturday it was ceasing operations in Venezuela and selling all of its assets in the country, a sudden move that could damage Venezuela’s already collapsing economy.

The United States had imposed sanctions on two Rosneft oil trading subsidiaries this year for helping Venezuela’s authoritarian president, Nicolás Maduro, stay in power. Those sanctions have hurt the company’s business elsewhere in the world.

By late 2019, Rosneft had emerged as the biggest economic ally of Mr. Maduro, accounting for up to two-thirds of the country’s oil trade and a significant share of crude production. The lifeline provided by Rosneft has allowed Mr. Maduro to maintain a flow of hard currency and supply the country with gasoline.

In a statement, Rosneft said it had agreed to sell its Venezuelan assets to an unnamed company that it described as wholly owned by the Russian government.

“Being a public international company, we took a decision that was in the interest of our shareholders,” Mikhail Leontyev, Rosneft’s spokesman, told Interfax, a Russian news agency. “Now, we have the right to expect American regulators to deliver on the promises that they have publicly made.”

Rosneft’s withdrawal from Venezuela could deal a blow to the country’s declining oil industry, which has struggled to deal with tightening American sanctions and, more recently, the fall of global oil prices.

It is unclear, however, whether the announcement would really result in Rosneft’s exit from Venezuela.

The lack of publicly disclosed details on the sale, combined with an unusual compensation structure and the involvement of a Russian state-owned buyer, may allow Rosneft to continue doing business with Mr. Maduro under a different name to bypass American sanctions.

Industry executives with interests in Venezuela said Rosneft appears to want to take its name out of the Venezuelan headlines without substantially changing Russia’s role in Venezuela.

The Trump administration this month sanctioned TNK Trading International, a subsidiary of Rosneft, after it stepped up shipments of Venezuelan crude to circumvent American sanctions against Venezuelan oil.

Sanctions on two Rosneft subsidiaries that were shipping Venezuelan oil have led China and India to slow purchases, leading to a near-overflow of petroleum storage tanks in Venezuelan ports. That has put further pressure on Venezuelan production, which had stabilized at 750,000 barrels early this year but is now falling as the coronavirus is reducing energy demand and forcing Venezuela to sell what it can at highly discounted prices.

Anatoly Kurmanaev reported from Caracas, and Clifford Krauss from Houston. Ivan Nechepurenko in Moscow contributed reporting from Moscow.