Feb 18, 2020 - World

U.S. targets Russian oil giant in escalating campaign vs. Venezuela

Maduro and Putin

Maduro and Putin in 2015. Photo: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

The Trump administration today announced sanctions on Rosneft Trading, a subsidiary of Russian oil giant Rosneft, for helping to keep Venezuela's Maduro regime afloat by facilitating oil exports.

Why it matters: Senior administration officials announcing the sanctions in a call with reporters framed the step as a warning not only to Rosneft but to Russia. They described it as part of a "maximum pressure" campaign that is currently "50-60%" implemented and will continue to ramp up as long as Nicolás Maduro refuses to give up power.

The big picture: It has been 13 months since the U.S. recognized National Assembly President Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's rightful leader and warned that Maduro's days in power were numbered.

  • Venezuela slipped down the administration's priority list following a failed uprising there last April. In Venezuela, hopes have sagged and momentum stalled.
  • But Guaidó continues to have bipartisan support in Washington. He finished a recent international tour with an appearance at the State of the Union.

Details: One administration official described Rosneft Trading as the "gravest violator" of U.S. restrictions on conducting business with the Maduro regime. The firm's chairman, Didier Casimiro, was also sanctioned.

  • Another official described a "growing and increasingly central role of Rosneft in the affairs of Venezuela, particularly in the last year."
  • An estimated 70-80% of Venezuela's oil exports are handled by Russian firms, primarily Rosneft, per the Washington Post.
  • Those revenues help the Maduro regime sustain itself and keep key officials and military officers in the fold.
  • Rosneft stock fell on news of the sanctions.

Asked how additional sanctions would help achieve the end goal of democratic elections in Venezuela, a senior administration official said support from the likes of Rosneft and the Cuban government had given Maduro a "false sense of confidence."

  • Still, the official claimed, there are signs Maduro is considering his options should he have to "exit physically or politically" or make way for a new presidential election.

Flashback: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed following the attempted overthrow of Maduro last April that it was the Russians who convinced Maduro not to flee.

  • An official on the call today accused Russia of complicity with Maduro's abuses and "death squads."

What to watch: There was considerable speculation last year about a possible U.S. or U.S.-backed military intervention to oust Maduro. That has died down, though an administration official reiterated on the call that "all options are on the table."

Go deeper: Maduro survives 2019

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