FPI Bulletin: Tillerson, Trump, and Putin

January 19, 2017

One year ago, Rex Tillerson told students at the University of Texas that he had “a very close relationship” with Vladimir Putin and that Exxon Mobil had profited greatly from its investments in Russia. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tillerson worked hard to dispel the notion that his intimacy with Putin would prevent him from standing up to the Kremlin. Whereas the president-elect refuses to admit that Putin has launched a campaign of intimidation and aggression against his neighbors, Tillerson affirmed these truths without hesitation. On the other hand, Tillerson quickly became defensive when confronted by the subject of Russian atrocities at home and abroad.

The fundamental question about Tillerson is whether his private advice to the president will mirror his public condemnation of Putin’s aggression. The answer to that question is speculative, so members of the Senate will have to rely on their instincts to assess the character and sincerity of the man nominated to serve as our country’s next chief diplomat.

The Russian Threat

In his testimony, Tillerson clearly understood the imperative to speak about Russia in a manner that was dramatically different from the president-elect. As a candidate, Trump said it was a “great honor” to be praised by Putin. The next day, an interviewer challenged the president-elect to explain the value of being praised by a “person who kills journalists, political opponents and invades countries.” Jarringly, Trump brushed aside the question by saying that “our country does plenty of killing also,” as if there is any similarity between pursuing terrorists abroad and violently suppressing dissent at home. The president-elect even praised Putin as a “strong leader” who was doing his job more effectively than Barack Obama.

In contrast, Tillerson offered no praise of the Russian leader. In his opening statement, he said, “Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia,” since it has invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. He later said that the “Article V commitment is inviolable”, acknowledging that the U.S. has a “binding obligation” to defend any member of the alliance who is a victim of aggression. Furthermore, Tillerson said he would never “threaten to break the U.S. commitment to Article V as a means of pressuring allies to spend more on defense”—a tactic frequently suggested by the president-elect.

Tillerson also denied that Russia has any valid claim to control of Crimea. Correctly, he described the conflict in eastern Ukraine as the result of a Russian invasion, not a separatist conflict or insurgency, as the Kremlin would have it. Even so, Tillerson hesitated to condemn Russia’s flagrant violation of the Minsk II agreement, designed to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Instead, Tillerson commented that “the process for implementing the Minsk Agreement…continues,” a formulation that does not even recognize that major violations continue, let alone that only one side is responsible for them.

In terms of specific recommendations, Tillerson parted ways with both Donald Trump and Barack Obama by calling for the provision of defense weapons to Ukraine. In the days before the Republican convention, Trump campaign staff ensured that the GOP platform would not support the provision of weapons for Ukraine, despite strong support within the party. The candidate also warned that an aggressive stance toward Russia would trigger World War III. Tillerson expressed precisely the opposite view—only by standing up to Russia could the U.S. prevent further conflict. Since Putin is well-prepared to exploit weakness and timidity, actions such as the invasion of Crimea demand “a proportional show of force to indicate to Russia there will be no more taking of territory.”

If Tillerson felt this way before his nomination, he never made his opinion public. As the CEO of Exxon Mobil, he opposed the sanctions imposed on Russia in response to its aggression. On this point and others, the Senate will face the difficult task of evaluating the nominee’s candor, since he either arrived at such positions only recently, or did not consider himself at liberty to make such remarks during his tenure at Exxon Mobil.

Human Rights

On the question of human rights, Tillerson was less well-prepared to allay the concerns of his critics. In his opening statement, he condemned Russia for “support[ing] Syrian forces that brutally violate the laws of war.” In response to the committee’s questions, Tillerson acknowledged that Russia is a dictatorship on par with Iran—a statement in sharp contrast to Trump’s praise for the popularity of Vladimir Putin and assertion that the Russian people “respect him as a leader.” Tillerson also assured the panel that he would comply with the Magnitsky Act and related legislation, which authorize sanctions against foreign officials responsible for corruption and human rights violations. Yet the nominee appeared flat-footed when asked for simple affirmations that certain atrocities or other human rights violations had taken place.

When asked by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) whether Vladimir Putin is war criminal, Tillerson replied, “I would not use that term.” In response, Rubio reminded Tillerson of Russian air strikes on civilian targets in Syria, as well as similar atrocities on far larger scale in Chechnya during its civil war. Still, Tillerson hesitated to give a direct answer, preferring to say that he “would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion.”

Next, Tillerson found it difficult to answer Sen. Rubio’s question, “Do you believe that Vladimir Putin and his cronies are responsible for ordering the murder of countless dissidents, journalists, and political opponents?” Tillerson answered curtly, “I do not have sufficient information to make that claim.” When pressed, Tillerson insisted again that he did not have sufficient information to answer in the affirmative.

In light of his extensive experience in Russia and personal relationship with its leaders, Tillerson’s answers are deeply unsatisfying. Two years ago, the Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead just steps from the Kremlin. The regime went through the motions of investigating the murder, only to produce a series of implausible and inconclusive findings. Of course, this is standard practice for political murders in Russia. Had Tillerson just mentioned Nemtsov by name, along with other victims of political assassination, he could have demonstrated his grasp of the deplorable state of human rights in Russia. Similarly, when asked if Putin is a war criminal, Tillerson could’ve described scenes of carnage in Aleppo. He might even have answered with a simple “yes”, which Nikki Haley did at her confirmation hearing. Instead, Tillerson’s answers displayed a regrettable indifference to the victims of Putin’s violence.

The Standard for Confirmation

When considering the nomination of cabinet members, the Senate has a strong tradition of deference to the president, so long as his candidates are qualified. This year, an extra measure of caution is warranted in light of the president-elect’s lengthy record of disturbing statements about Russia, NATO, and numerous other subjects related to U.S. national security. Thankfully, Trump’s nominees to serve as secretary of defense and director of the CIA have demonstrated a clear understanding of the threats our country faces, especially from Russia. It is less certain where Mr. Tillerson stands. His tenure at Exxon Mobil clearly shows that he is capable of managing a global enterprise with tens of thousands of employees. The more difficult question for senators to consider is whether he will exert a positive influence on an impulsive commander-in-chief whose words often reflect a deep confusion about America’s interests and values.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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