January 28, 2016 / 12:45 PM / in 2 years

Putin ally absent as Russia considers joint action with OPEC

A general view of the OPEC building and logo in Vienna , November 7, 2013.Leonhard Foeger

LONDON/MOSCOW (Reuters) - When Russian officials this week discussed the merits of jointly cutting oil output with OPEC to push up prices, one man -- President Vladimir Putin's ally Igor Sechin -- was conspicuous in his absence.

The no-show by the chief executive of Russia's biggest oil producer, Rosneft, at Wednesday's meeting of oil executives and government officials and his silence suggests the Kremlin has not yet decided whether to back such a move.

The meeting raised the possibility of rare joint action with OPEC, of which Russia is not a member, because of a global oil glut but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said there is "nothing to talk about in a tangible sense" for now.

The final decision will lie with Putin but Sechin's input is likely to be crucial as Russia considers acting in tandem with OPEC for the first time since an ill-fated 2001 deal at the start of Putin's first presidency, when Russia promised modest cuts but raised exports instead.

Sechin has repeatedly made clear in public that Russia, the world's largest oil producer, will not blink first in the battle with OPEC over market share and pricing even though the Russian economy is highly dependent on oil exports and prices have sunk below $30 per barrel from $115 some 18 months ago.

At the table with oil minister Alexander Novak, billionaire executives of private Russian companies and state pipeline officials on Wednesday was Rosneft's chief financial officer, Svyatoslav Slavinsky, who said little about his boss's views, participants at the meeting told Reuters.

The meeting agreed Russia should talk to Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries about output cuts, although the only OPEC members to clearly support a production cut so far are Algeria, Equador and Venezuela.

"It was a proper, serious discussion. But Sechin wasn't there and no deal is possible without him," said one person who took part in the meeting but asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

"The debate we had could be framed this way: Do we carry on with prices at $35 per barrel for the next two years without doing anything, or do we do something and have prices at $50?" the source said. "So we decided it is better to talk to the Saudis".

CRITICISM OF OPEC

OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia has repeatedly called on non-members to contribute to output cuts if they want the organization to help producers deal with the oil glut, which follows a boom in U.S. shale oil and a decision by OPEC to pump more oil to try to win back market share.

"It was clear to everyone in the room that if we agree to cooperate, the Saudis will ask for a cut of 4-5 percent or 400,000-500,000 bpd from Russia. Then, opinions differed whether Russia could really do it," another participant said.

The Russian rouble sank to an all-time low this month and, with a parliamentary election scheduled this year and a presidential election due in 2018, pressure is rising on the Kremlin to protect state revenues and limit public discontent.

Putin sees the oil sector as an important factor in Russia's global standing and in contacts with the West on issues such as the conflicts in Syria and east Ukraine as Moscow seeks the lifting of sanctions over its seizure of the Crimea region.

It was the head of pipeline monopoly Transneft, Nikolai Tokarev, who spoke to reporters after this week's meeting. Like Sechin, Tokarev is close to Putin, having worked in the same KGB department in the Soviet era.

Transneft, which is the world's largest pipeline system and controls Russian export flows, would have a role in ensuring state and private firms did not exceed their quotas if a deal were reached with OPEC.

Sechin, 56, who helped Putin consolidate a third of Russian oil industry under Rosneft following the chaotic privatization of the 1990s that followed the collapse of the communist Soviet Union, has until now left no doubt about his position on joint output cuts with OPEC.

"Sechin has long been totally against the idea. He believes that, as a superpower, Russia should not be making this type of alliance," said a source from outside Russia who has been involved in meetings between OPEC and Russia in recent years.

He has also criticized OPEC, telling London's International Petroleum Week a year ago that it had "lost its teeth" and "lost the unity of its members and in some cases is not respecting the interests of some of its members."

Editing by Timothy Heritage

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