After it emerged on Saturday that Trump had tipped Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson for the role of America's top diplomat, Trump was quick to shower the 64-year-old CEO with praise. In an interview with Fox News, Trump praised Mr Tillerson, saying: "He's a world-class player. He's in charge of an oil company that's pretty much double the size of its next nearest competitor." Trump added that Tillerson knows many of the players and he knows them well. He does massive deals in Russia."
On the other hand, as we cautioned, Tillerson's background of close proximity to Russia, and bogeyman du jour Vladimir Putin, would likely present a challenge to his confirmation. Recall that as Exxon CEO Tillerson struck a deal in 2011 giving Exxon access to prized Arctic resources in Russia as well as allowing Russia’s state oil company, OAO Rosneft, to invest in Exxon concessions all over the world. The following year, the Kremlin bestowed the country’s Order of Friendship decoration on Tillerson.
As the WSJ reported, "the deal would have been transformative for Exxon." Putin at the time called it one of the most important involving Russia and the U.S., forecasting that the partnership could eventually spend $500 billion. But it was subsequently blocked by sanctions on Russia that the U.S. and its allies imposed two years ago after the country’s invasion of Crimea and conflicts with Ukraine.
And while it was understandable - after all, Tillerson was acting in a fiduciary role to his shareholders - the fact that Tillerson criticized sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea, will likely complicate his candidacy.
One thing that will certainly not help is the Kremlin's effusive praise for the purported Secretary of State.
Speaking to journalists on Monday, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov praised the professionalism of Rex Tillerson, saying that “on account of his work as the head of one of the largest oil companies, he had contacts with our representatives more than once. He fulfills his responsibilities in a highly professional manner.”
Peskov also said “there’s a big difference being secretary of state and directing even a very big company” and that the Kremlin hoped for a “readiness to demonstrate a constructive attitude and display professionalism” from Washington. Putin had hosted Tillerson on several occasions, Peskov added. The Russian president honoured the oil executive with an order of friendship award in 2013.
That said, Peskov hedged by noting that his comments relate to whoever becomes Secretary of State, not simply to Tillerson, although it was quite clear that Russia has a soft spot for the Exxon head.
Other Russian officials also greeted warmly the possible appointment.
Senator Alexei Pushkov, a leading voice in foreign affairs, said the choice of Tillerson “confirms the seriousness of Trump’s intentions” to improve relations with Moscow. “Judging by his appointments to key positions in his administration, Trump wants to see America decisive and strong, but doesn’t see any reason for a conflict with Russia,” Pushkov tweeted after the news broke.
Tillerson is known to have grown close to Putin and Rosneft head Igor Sechin while working on oil exploration in Russia, which was frozen when the US imposed sanctions in 2014. As the Guardian notes, the three were filmed raising a champagne toast to an agreement between Rosneft and ExxonMobil. Putin also commended the “increasingly close relations” between Tillerson’s company and Russia.
Sechin once said that before sanctions he and Tillerson had been planning a motorcycle road trip in the US.
Praise did not just come from the the Russians: Carter Page, an American energy consultant with ties to the president-elect who has criticised US sanctions against Russia, also lauded Tillerson on Monday during a trip to Russia. Trump named Page as one of his foreign policy advisers in March, but his campaign subsequently denied any connection to the consultant after reports that US intelligence was probing Page’s ties to Russia.
“The US and Russia still have 99 problems to address at home and around the world. But this marks the start of a new era where they can now work on them together, instead of remaining consistently obstructed by a long history of toxic personal relationships,” Page said of the expected Tillerson pick, news agency Sputnik reported.
Others focused on the diplomatic message Trump was sending with Tillerson's upcoming appointment. “Tillerson will be a credible and effective messenger for a US reset, because he is not a member of the foreign policy establishment, but also because his history embodies the investment potential Russia could enjoy with a better relationship with the United States,” David L. Goldwyn, the State Department’s top energy diplomat during the first Obama administration, told the New York Times.
Goldwyn added that Trump “has definitely decided to do a reverse Nixon and side with Russia against China. He thinks we probably can make common cause with Russia in Syria but also in Libya, and he doesn’t have a problem supporting strongmen.”
However, Tillerson’s appointment was not looked upon favorably by some Republicans. Marko Rubio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted on Sunday that “being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for” in America’s next top diplomat. His fellow senator, John McCain, told CBS that he fears Tillerson’s perspective “would color his [Trump’s] approach to Vladimir Putin and the Russian threat” if he were to become his secretary of state.
Of course, the opinions of both Rubio and especially warhawk McCain, who would enjoy a continuation of the Clinton foreign policy, are completely irrelevant, and if anything their opposition to Tillerson may be precisely what cements the Exxon CEO's transition to the role of America's top diplomat.