The United States on Monday imposed sweeping sanctions on Venezuelan state-owned oil firm PDVSA, aimed at severely curbing the OPEC member's crude exports to the US and pressuring socialist President Nicolas Maduro to step down.
Maduro, in a live national broadcast on Monday, accused the United States of trying to steal US refining arm Citgo Petroleum, the OPEC member's most important foreign asset, which also manages a chain of US gas stations. He said Venezuela would take legal actions in response, Reuters reported.
Russia, a close ally of Venezuela, denounced the move as illegal interference in Venezuela's affairs and said the curbs meant Venezuela would probably have problems servicing its $3.15 billion sovereign debt to Moscow.
Minutes before the sanctions announcement, Juan Guaido, the opposition leader who proclaimed himself interim president last week with US backing, said congress would name new boards of directors to the company and its US subsidiary, Citgo.
Guaido, supported by the United States and most countries in the Western Hemisphere, says Maduro stole his re-election and must resign to allow new, fair polls.
In the first sign of serious retaliation, three sources with knowledge of the decision said PDVSA had ordered customers with tankers waiting to load Venezuelan crude bound for the United States to prepay for the cargoes or they will be authorized to fill the vessels or leave the ports.
The sanctions stopped short of banning US companies from buying Venezuelan oil, but because the proceeds of such sales will be put in a "blocked account," PDVSA is likely to quickly stop shipping much crude to the United States, its top client.
Oil at sea, already paid for, would continue its journey to the United States, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said at a White House briefing. White House national security adviser John Bolton said at the briefing the measure would cost Maduro $11 billion in lost export proceeds over the next year and block him from accessing PDVSA assets worth $7 billion.
The Kremlin condemned the US sanctions as illegal interference in Venezuela, while Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they looked like an attempt to confiscate Venezuelan state assets.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the new sanctions "violate all possible international norms" and show a course toward regime change in Venezuela.
"The US has... publicly taken a course toward illegal regime change," he said Tuesday.
Russia will "do everything to support the legitimate government of president Maduro," he said at a press conference.
The sanctions, contained in an executive order issued by US President Donald Trump, freeze US-based assets of PDVSA, Venezuela's largest source of revenue.
The Trump administration had long held off on targeting Venezuela's vital oil sector for fear that it would hurt US refiners and raise oil prices for Americans. White House officials had also expressed concern about inflicting further hardship on the Venezuelan people.
The latest sanctions appear to seek to build on the momentum mounting in recent weeks against Maduro at home and abroad.
US officials said the sanctions on PDVSA were intended to prevent Maduro's government from siphoning off funds from the oil company to remain in power.
Mnuchin said oil supplies were sufficient to ensure no significant impact on US gas prices in the short term.
Countries around the world have recognized Guaido, the National Assembly speaker, as Venezuela's rightful leader, and the United States vowed to starve Maduro's administration of oil revenue after he was sworn in on Jan. 10 for a second term that was widely dubbed illegitimate.
Maduro has promised to stay in office, backed by Russia and China.