The Trump administration has announced sanctions on a Russian state-controlled brokerage that has helped the Venezuelan government skirt an US oil embargo and enabled President Nicolas Maduro to keep his grip on power in the South American country.
Administration officials said Rosneft Trading and its president, Didier Casimiro, would be added to a financial blacklist in a move expected to largely freeze him and the company out of the global financial system.
It is an unusually strong move against a company linked to the Russian state and amounts to a substantial escalation of a US-led campaign that has failed to oust Mr Maduro from power.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said Rosneft is the primary broker for the sale and transportation of Venezuelan crude oil.
“Rosneft Trading has propped up the dictatorial Maduro, enabling his repression of the Venezuelan people,” he said in announcing the sanctions.
Rosneft Trading is incorporated in Switzerland and Russian-owned, according to the State Department.
But Russian legislator Pavel Zavalny said the country would continue to co-operate with Venezuela in the energy sector despite the US sanctions. “One doesn’t abandon friends in need,” he said.
The US and about 60 other countries say Mr Maduro’s re-election in 2018 was not legitimate and have recognised opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president.
The US is considering additional economic sanctions aimed at further tightening economic pressure on the Maduro government, the special US envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, told reporters.
Mr Maduro has held on to power despite runaway hyperinflation, a massive exodus, shortages of food and medicine and the international pressure that has left his socialist administration isolated.
Venezuela managed to ship hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil last year with the help of Rosneft Trading despite sanctions on its petroleum sector imposed by the Trump administration.
Mr Guaido called the latest sanctions a “new victory!”
“Whoever supports the dictator, from whatever part of the world, will bear the consequences,” he tweeted. “Those who collaborate with democracy will be welcomed.”
He launched a campaign to oust Mr Maduro a year ago but has failed to make it a reality. He has been unable to flip the military’s loyalty away from Mr Maduro.
In recent months the Venezuelans who had fervently supported Mr Guaido early on had stopped filling the streets for demonstrations, and Mr Maduro has been emboldened.
The action against Rosneft Trading and Mr Casamiro means any assets they have in the US or in the control of US financial institutions will be frozen. In addition, anyone who does business with them could face American sanctions, which senior administration officials told reporters should largely freeze the company out of the global financial system.
The officials said the move was not expected to have a significant effect on global oil prices.
Officials also said that President Donald Trump approved the move. They said he has spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the past about US objections to his country’s support for Mr Maduro.