The ExxonMobil-led operator of Russia's Sakhalin 1 oil and gas development has denied a report that the company instructed its employees not to attend public protests held across the country last weekend following the high-profile arrest of leading opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

Exxon Neftegaz, which operates the project in Russia's far east, rejected the accusations that surfaced in a report on a local social networking channel.

“It is Exxon Neftegaz’s practice to distribute public safety updates on public gatherings to all employees, to ensure our personnel and their families are aware and capable of making safe choices”, the company told Upstream.

A company official has confirmed that an email had been distributed to employees ahead of the protests, however, it contained only a “warning” of a possible hazard to expatriates and Russian employees on shifts on the island and its capital, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

It is the operator’s policy to maintain “strict [political] neutrality” and leave “political views” for the sole discretion of employees, the official insisted.

The operator does co-operate with Russian authorities in helping to arrange remote voting stations at its installations on Sakhalin, however, it does not guide employees to take any preferred political choice, the official said.

A 20% stake in Sakhalin 1 is held by Russia's largest oil producer, Rosneft. Opposition leaders have repeatedly pointed to the vast wealth of its chairman Igor Sechin, a long-time associate of President Vladimir Putin.

According to local reports, police detained 10 people during the 23 January rally in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk where an estimated 400 protesters denounced growing corruption in the country and called for authorities to free Navalny from prison.

Due to time differences, protests in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk started several hours before thousand of protesters took to the streets in Moscow and St Petersburg.

US Senator intervention

The call for Saturday’s public gathering led to a Moscow office of US oil and gas consultancy McKinsey & Company to send an email, banning employees from attending upcoming protests and writing posts on social media featuring their “political views or attitude to any action with a political flavor”.

The email immediately drew criticism from US Senator Marco Rubio, who expressed “dismay and disbelief” at McKinsey’s actions.

“It is no secret that McKinsey maintains close business ties to Russian government agencies and Kremlin-linked companies. As the initial guidance emailed to Moscow-based employees suggests, the company is little more than a tool for authoritarian repression,” Rubio’s letter says.

On the day of protests, McKinsey managing partner Vitaly Klintsov messaged his staff to clarify the earlier correspondence, according to the Moscow Times.

“Some of you have raised concerns about my email to the office yesterday. I admit that the firm’s policy was incorrectly reflected in that email.

"McKinsey supports its employees' rights to participate legally and in a personal capacity in civic and political activities across the countries we operate. The recognition of these rights is unqualified,” he wrote.