- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Trump administration on Tuesday imposed strong new sanctions on a Russian oil giant for its role in aiding socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s regime, imposing the restrictions despite earlier concerns about the impact the move could have on world energy markets.

The latest sanctions will hit the brokerage trading unit of Russia’s Rosneft oil company, Vice President Didier Casimiro and “anyone engaging in activity” with the company, a senior U.S. official told reporters.

U.S. officials claimed the Russian company has been the “overwhelming provider of trading” for the Maduro regime’s oil, “and has provided the overwhelming amount of financial resources and hard currency that have been coming into” Venezuela.

They characterized the Moscow-controlled, Switzerland-based Rosneft Trading S.A. as the “primary culprit” in Mr. Maduro’s successful maneuvers to dodge the administration’s economic pressure campaign designed to drive him from power. The unit was created nearly a decade ago in part to get around trading restrictions facing its Russian parent company, U.S. officials said.

“As the primary broker of global deals for the sale and transport of Venezuela’s crude oil, Rosneft Trading has propped up the dictatorial Maduro, enabling his repression of the Venezuelan people,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

Russia immediately hit back at the penalties targeting one of the country’s best-known companies, calling the move “unacceptable.”

Russia “stands for an inclusive dialogue between all significant political forces of Venezuela without interference into its internal affairs from abroad,” the Russian Embassy tweeted. “This is another clear example of unfair competition.”

Rosneft said in a statement that its projects in Venezuela were “in strict compliance with the norms of international and national laws,” and that it “does not pursue any political goals.”

Rosneft has loaned the Maduro government $6.5 billion for Venezuela’s state-run oil company PDVSA, a crucial source of revenue for Caracas, and has maintained its role as the oil-rich South American country’s primary crude oil shipper.

The Trump administration and nations across Latin America and Europe have targeted the Maduro government, saying Mr. Maduro was fraudulently elected and has presided over the worst humanitarian and economic crisis in the Western Hemisphere. But the Maduro government has so far resisted an international pressure campaign in support of opposition leader Juan Guaido and has clung fiercely to power.

Mr. Pompeo tweeted Tuesday that the sanctions will cut off “Maduro’s main lifeline to evade our sanctions on the Venezuelan oil sector. Those who prop up the corrupt regime and enable its repression of the Venezuelan people will be held accountable.”

U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams said there would be “more steps and further pressure in the coming weeks and months” targeting the Maduro regime. Rosneft handles about 70% of Venezuela’s oil, Mr. Abrams said.

The White House said that while the sanctions mark a “serious action,” officials are confident that both the global oil and energy markets will remain stable. Russia is the second largest source of oil imports to the U.S., according to government data.

The new sanctions came two weeks after Mr. Guaido returned from a trip of Western capitals seeking support for his rebellion, a trip highlighted by a surprise appearance at the State of the Union address earlier this month followed by a formal White House meeting with President Trump.

Mr. Guaido welcomed Tuesday’s moves, tweeting that the Rosneft sanctions are “a victory” for the opposition.

“Whoever supports the dictator … must bear the consequences. Those who collaborate with democracy will be welcome,” he said.

But the international pressure so far has yet to dislodge the socialist president, who has received critical economic and diplomatic support from Russia and countries such as China, Turkey and Cuba.

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