Nicolas Maduro said during a call Saturday that Vladimir Putin had assured him of Moscow's "comprehensive, strategic support" to Venezuela "in all areas." Credit: Daily Mail.

The game of chess being played by the world’s biggest petroleum producers continues, with the latest chapter now involving Venezuela.

Russia’s largest oil producer, Rosneft, said this weekend it terminated operations in Venezuela and sold the assets linked to its operations in the South American nation to an unnamed company wholly owned by the Russian government, reported.

It is believed that passing its assets to an entity owned by Moscow — Rosneft, headed by Igor Sechin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin — was intended to shield Russia’s largest oil producer from US sanctions in the wake of a US narcotics indictment of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Rosneft said in a statement that “all assets and trading operations of Rosneft in Venezuela and/or connected with Venezuela will be disposed of, terminated or liquidated.”

It is not clear how this move would impact the Rosneft’s upstream joint ventures and Venezuelan state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), while the oil prices are languishing at around US$25, the report said.

The US government has ramped up pressure on Maduro’s government, including imposing sanctions on two Swiss-based Rosneft units, Rosneft Trading and TNK Trading International, the report said. Washington alleges those companies are providing PDVSA a lifeline by acting as intermediaries for its crude.

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, the report said.

Maduro said during a call Saturday on a state television program that Putin had assured him of Moscow’s “comprehensive, strategic support” to Venezuela “in all areas.”

Russia, via the state company Rosneftegaz, owns over 50% of Rosneft’s capital. Qatar via QH Oil Investments LLC, owns another 18.93%, other international shareholders include BP (BP.L), has 19.75%, the report said.

The change of ownership means any future US sanctions on Russian-controlled oil operations in Venezuela would target the Russian government directly — a fait accompli for the Russians and another dead end for the Americans.

Rosneft spokesman Mikhail Leontiyev said the decision to terminate operations in Venezuela was meant to protect the company’s shareholders, but some analysts see it as yet another deft move by the Kremlin.

“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 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, the report said.

The Petromonagas field produced 79,000 barrels of crude on Friday, according to an internal PDVSA document, representing around 10% of the country’s total output.