Rosneft hands Venezuelan oil business to Russian state firm

MOSCOW — Russia's Rosneft has transferred its assets in Venezuela to a company fully owned by Vladimir Putin's government, a move apparently intended to shield Russia's largest oil producer from U.S. sanctions while Moscow continues showing support for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in the wake of a U.S. narcotics indictment.

The sale, announced Saturday, follows the recent sanctioning of two Rosneft subsidiaries in an effort to cut a critical lifeline that Russia extended to Maduro after the U.S. government made it illegal for Americans to buy crude from Venezuela.

Rosneft, led by longtime Putin associate Igor Sechin, said its move means “all assets and trading operations of Rosneft in Venezuela and/or connected with Venezuela will be disposed of, terminated or liquidated.” It did not name the new company that would take over the assets, which include multiple joint ventures, oil-field services companies and trading activities. The move comes at a critical time for Maduro's government. The spread of the coronavirus threatens to overwhelm Venezuela's already collapsed health system while depriving its crippled economy of oil revenue on which it almost exclusively depends for hard currency.

Maduro said later Saturday during a call to a state television program that Putin had assured him of Moscow's "comprehensive, strategic support" to Venezuela "in all areas.” He said the message was relayed by Russia’s ambassador to Caracas. Amid the pandemic, which has claimed two victims and infected 118 others in Venezuela, the U.S. is stepping up pressure to remove Maduro. On Thursday, it made public indictments against the socialist leader and several top aides for allegedly leading a narcoterrorist conspiracy that converted the Venezuelan state into a platform for violent drug cartels, money launderers and Colombian guerrillas who sent 250 metric tons of cocaine a year to the U.S.