Russia's largest oil producer, Rosneft, said on Saturday it had terminated operations in Venezuela and sold the assets linked to its operations in the South American nation to an unnamed company owned by the Russian government.
The impact of the move, announced at a time when oil prices are languishing at around $25 per barrel, on Rosneft's upstream joint ventures with Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA was not immediately clear.
The US government has ramped up pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government, including imposing sanctions on two Swiss-based Rosneft units - Rosneft Trading and TNK Trading International - that Washington said provided PDVSA a lifeline by acting as intermediaries for its crude.
The change of ownership announced on Saturday means any future US sanctions on Russian-controlled oil operations in Venezuela would target the Russian government directly.
Russia, via the state company Rosneftegaz, owns slightly over 50% of Kremlin-controlled Rosneft's capital. International shareholders include BP, which has 19.75%, and Qatar via QH Oil Investments LLC, which owns another 18.93%.
By withdrawing from Venezuela and passing its assets to an entity owned by Moscow, Rosneft, headed by Igor Sechin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, transfers the risks related to its Venezuelan operations to the Russian government.
The US State Department did not immediately respond to a request from Reuters for comment.
Rosneft spokesman Mikhail Leontiyev told Reuters the decision to terminate operations in Venezuela was meant to protect the company's shareholders.
"We defended the interests of our shareholders and did it in an effective way," Leontiyev said. "And to whom the risks go is not an issue for us. The main thing is that the risks are leaving us."
Rosneft would not disclose the name of the company to which it had sold its Venezuelan operations. A spokesman for the Russian government confirmed it had purchased Rosneft's operations in Venezuela, but declined to say what company was involved in the deal.
Tankers sail away
Rosneft Trading and TNK took more than a third of Venezuela's oil exports in 2019, allowing PDVSA to continue crude shipments even after US sanctions imposed on the company left many traditional customers unwilling to work with it.
But neither company has lifted Venezuelan crude so far in March, and three tankers chartered by Rosneft to transport some 5.7 million barrels left Caribbean waters empty on Saturday after waiting off the Venezuelan coast for weeks.
It was not immediately clear if the apparent pullback would lead to a lifting of sanctions on Rosneft Trading and TNK. The Treasury Department has said it will "consider lifting sanctions for those who take concrete, meaningful, and verifiable actions to support democratic order in Venezuela."
"Now it is our right to expect the fulfilment of the promises that were made publicly by American regulators," a Rosneft representative said.
Along with some other Russian companies and individuals, Rosneft has been under US financial and technological sanctions since 2014, after Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimea region.
Rosneft said the Venezuelan assets sold include those in the joint ventures of Petromonagas, Petroperija, Boqueron, Petromiranda and Petrovictoria, as well as in oilfield services companies, commercial and trading operations, it said.
The most significant of those operations is Petromonagas, a project in which Rosneft has a 40% stake that includes a field in the Orinoco oil belt and a heavy crude upgrader near the Jose terminal.
The Petromonagas field produced 79,000 barrels of crude on Friday, according to an internal PDVSA document seen by Reuters, representing around 10% of the country's total output. The upgrader, however, has been offline for months.
PDVSA and the country's oil ministry did not immediately respond to requests from Reuters for comment.
While it was not immediately clear how the move would impact operations at those joint ventures, Russia's ambassador to Venezuela, Sergei Melik-Bagdasarov, wrote on Twitter that the deal would allow the two countries to continue working together.
"Don't worry! This is about the transfer of Rosneft's assets in Venezuela to Russia's government directly. We will remain together going forward," he wrote on Twitter. Venezuela's Maduro retweeted the ambassador's comment.
Elias Matta, an opposition lawmaker who chairs the Venezuelan National Assembly's energy committee, said any transfer of shares in the joint ventures would need to be approved by the congress to be considered legitimate.
Rosneft said it would be receiving a settlement payment worth a 9.6% share of Rosneft's equity capital that would be held by a subsidiary. It did not say which of its shareholders was responsible for transferring the 9.6% stake.