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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gazprom: U.S. Firm in Yukos Talks

Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller said Thursday that a U.S. oil firm had approached the company about bidding for Yukos assets, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said after a meeting between Miller and U.S. Ambassador William Burns.

Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov confirmed that Miller and Burns discussed Yukos during the hour-long talks late Thursday but declined to provide further details.

"Gazprom raised continuing interest in private American firms investing in the Russian energy sector," the embassy spokeswoman said. "In that context, Gazprom mentioned an inquiry they had received about Yukos assets."

Nearly 200 Yukos assets are up for auction this year, as a state-appointed bankruptcy receiver sells off the remainder of what was once the country's largest oil company. The specter of a U.S. bid called into question whether Washington's loud criticism of the affair would continue.

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack was the first to step forward Monday after former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky was indicted on fresh charges that could keep him behind bars for an additional 15 years.

"The continued prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the dismantlement of Yukos raise serious questions about the rule of law in Russia," he said.

Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev, the former head of main Yukos shareholder Menatep, now known as GML, were indicted on money-laundering and embezzlement charges. They are already serving eight-year sentences for fraud and tax evasion.

Speculation was rife that Khodorkovsky was on the brink of selling a major stake in Yukos to a U.S. oil firm, such as ExxonMobil or Chevron, in the weeks before his arrest in October 2003.

ExxonMobil is currently working with Rosneft to develop Sakhalin-1, a major oil and gas project in the Far East. U.S. oil major ConocoPhillips maintains a 20 percent stake in LUKoil, and California-based Chevron recently formed a joint venture with Gazprom Neft, Gazprom's oil unit.

None of those U.S. companies could be reached for comment late Thursday.

"Since they stole Yukos, the Russian government has done everything it can to legitimize it," Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer for Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, said by telephone from London late Thursday.

"An American company getting involved would surprise even me," Amsterdam said, questioning why Gazprom was the one to come forward with news of the U.S. firm's interest.

Gazprom and state-controlled oil firm Rosneft have both expressed interest in the Yukos assets to be auctioned off this year. The prize assets are two oil production units, Tomskneft and Samaraneftegaz.

Gazprom and Rosneft competed fiercely for Yuganskneftegaz, Yukos' main oil production unit that went up for auction one year after Khodorkovsky's arrest. Rosneft snatched up the asset at a knockdown price, following a legal injunction from a U.S. court that prompted Gazprom to withdraw its bid.

ESN Energo, an investment vehicle representing Gazprom and Italy's Eni and Enel, has already applied to the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service for approval to bid for the Yukos assets.

"It is clear that the Yukos assets will go to a state-run company," said Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Alfa Bank. The state would like to get a U.S. company involved, however, he said.

"They are keen to try to change the view of the Yukos affair from an asset grab to Russia's Enron," he said, referring to the bankrupt U.S. energy company whose CEO was jailed after a major accounting scandal.

In addition to Yukos, Burns and Miller also raised the issue of U.S. participation in Shtokman. Gazprom's Kupriyanov said U.S. companies would only be invited in as contractors, and reiterated the state-run gas giant's intention to keep its 100 percent equity stake in the Arctic gas field.