Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has emerged as the point man for the Trump administration’s confrontational approach to Russia, a repudiation of widespread media hand-wringing that he would be a pushover in negotiations with Moscow.
Tillerson’s hard line on Russia contrasts previous reports suggesting he would bend over backward to mollify Russian President Vladimir Putin with whom he has ties after 10 years as the CEO of ExxonMobil.
A December report from Time called President Donald Trump’s nomination of Tillerson a move the could “hardly have been more perfect if the Kremlin itself had scripted it.” Time wondered if Tillerson, carrying a “reputation as an unsentimental dealmaker,” would reshape American diplomacy and acquiesce to Russia’s desire for America to stop putting “principles ahead of profits.”
The New York Times reported that Tillerson’s financial stake in ExxonMobil would almost certainly influence his position on U.S.-imposed sanctions on Russia.
“Mr. Tillerson’s career is igniting a debate over the blending of business and politics — and whether that could tip the scales of in Russia’s favor on major policy decisions like sanctions,” the Times said.
Julia Ioffe, in a Dec. 10 piece for POLITICO Magazine, doubted Tillerson would be able set side his “friendship” with Putin if diplomatic negotiations ever called for a firmer hand. Recounting Tillerson’s past criticism of the Putin government, she wrote:
“It’s hard to imagine Tillerson, now reportedly the front-runner for secretary of state under President-elect Donald Trump, saying something similar today, much less from a stage in Russia’s second capital, Vladimir Putin’s birthplace, and at a high-stakes, window-dressing government function.”
Tillerson, however, has defied speculation since taking the reins at the Department of State.
He told reporters that “steps are underway” to seek Assad’s removal in the wake of the Syrian regime’s chemical attack. He followed up his aggressive statement with more tough talk at Monday’s Group of Seven meeting in Italy, saying that Russia failed its responsibility to rid the Syrian regime of chemical weapons and prevented peace by propping up Assad. (RELATED: Tillerson To Russia: You’re Either With Us Or Assad)
“We want to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people,” Tillerson said. “Russia can be a part of that future and play an important role, or Russia can maintain its alliance with this group, which we believe is not going to serve Russia’s interests longer term.”
Tillerson has also refused to budge on the issue of Russian sanctions for its military intervention Ukraine and interference in the 2016 presidential election. He confirmed sanctions will continue until Russia changes its policy during an appearance last Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
“There’s been no change of the status of the situation in Ukraine or Crimea, and those sanctions will remain in place until those issues are addressed,” Tillerson said.
The secretary of state hasn’t wilted in face-to-face discussions with Russian officials, either. After Wednesday meetings with Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Tillerson refused to paper over differences between Washington and Moscow on the issue of responsibility for the sarin attack in Syria or the extent of Russian meddling in U.S. and European elections. (RELATED: Russia Chides Tillerson For Alarming US Actions In Syria)
Contrary to fears that he would capitulate to Putin on sanctions in exchange for progress in Syria, Tillerson was content to let the differences stand, saying only that the U.S. and Russia were “establishing a working group to address smaller issues and make progress toward stabilizing the relationship.”
As the Times noted in a report following the meetings, “If a few weeks ago critics of the Trump administration feared that Mr. Tillerson would simply fold on sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, they need not have worried.”
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