Rex Tillerson’s testimony at Wednesday’s Senate confirmation hearing for secretary of state offered some relief for those worried about a foreign policy meltdown under Donald Trump.
The former Exxon Mobil CEO got a bipartisan grilling about his close ties to top Russian leaders. Senators wanted to know if Tillerson could pivot from pursuit of oil in the Russian Arctic to protecting U.S. interests from a hostile Kremlin.
Not all his answers were clear. But he came across as well-informed and serious. Most surprising, his positions often failed to track with those of Trump, including on Russia.
This raises an obvious question: Will Trump even listen to Tillerson’s advice? Nobody knows.
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Senate Foreign Relations committee members had good reason to give Tillerson such a grilling. His close relationships with Vladimir Putin, and with Putin’s key ally, the much-feared Igor Sechin, led to a half-billion-dollar joint venture for Exxon Mobil in the Russian Arctic.
In June 2014, after Russia had seized Crimea and was attacking eastern Ukraine, Tillerson was schmoozing with Sechin at an oil conference in Moscow. So senators wanted to know whether Tillerson would support continuing the sanctions imposed on Moscow for its Ukraine aggression – including sanctions on Sechin and the Rosneft state oil company he heads. Exxon Mobil reportedly lobbied to end those sanctions, because they froze the arctic deal.
The senators also wanted to know if Tillerson backed Putin’s claim that Russia was legally entitled to annex Crimea.
“No, Russia does not have legal claim to Crimea,” Tillerson replied. “Russia was taking territory that was not theirs.”
As for sanctions, he insisted Exxon had never lobbied to end sanctions over Ukraine, only to get a brief reprieve so they could wind up their Arctic-drilling operation. He also insisted he supported sanctions so long as they did not unduly penalize U.S. companies over European competitors.
Where things really got interesting, however, was when Tillerson laid out why the Obama team should have responded more firmly to Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Putin would move forward, Tillerson made clear, when he met no resistance, and stop when he did.
Tillerson said the Russian leader moved on eastern Ukraine because there was no firm military response to the taking of Crimea.
Russia, he says, has a long-term geographical plan to reestablish what it sees as its role in the world order. “If they don’t receive a response, they will execute the next step of that plan,” Tillerson said.
Tillerson said he supported NATO, along with enhanced NATO backing for the Baltic nations and Poland – states Moscow has been threatening. He said he was troubled by the Jan. 26 U.S. intel report on Russian hacking and that it was a “fair assumption” Putin was behind it.
Will Tillerson be able to persuade his boss to look at the big strategic picture? Will the oilman be able to convince Trump that Putin’s flattery is meant as manipulation? Tillerson appears able to put Kremlin “friendships” into proper perspective, but we’ll have to see him in action.