Russia

Trump's Team Looks Smarter on Russia

At his confirmation hearing, Rex Tillerson proposed the most coherent Russia policy the U.S. has seen this century

New rules.

Photographer: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Rex Tillerson made it clear at his confirmation hearing that he is not a fan of Vladimir Putin. That surprised many of those who held his record of successful deals in Russia, and his Russian Order of Friendship medal, against him. It shouldn't have. Tillerson was not out of sync with Donald Trump's stated desire for a better relationship with Russia, but he was signalling that improved relations shouldn't come at any price.

Tillerson started out by volunteering that "While Russia seeks respect and relevance on the global stage, its recent activities have disregarded America's interest." Then, under questioning from senators, he said the annexation of Crimea was "a taking of territory that was not theirs"; that "coming across the border of eastern Ukraine with both military assets and men was illegal"; that he supports the Magnitsky Act, which sanctions Russian officials involved in human rights violations; that the Russian military action in Aleppo was "not acceptable behavior"; that Russia has a poor human rights record and doesn't adhere to the rule of law.

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All this from a man who got a medal from Putin seemed to violate the cardinal rule of the "either-with-us-or-against-us" school of many American Russia-experts. Stanford professor Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and a staunch supporter of the Obama administration's Russia policy, tweeted incredulously:

Indeed, could this be the oil executive who, as McFaul noted earlier, is close to one of Putin's closest associates, Igor Sechin, the chief executive officer of state-owned oil behemoth Rosneft? Could this be the pick of Donald Trump, who has promised to get along with Putin and praised his intelligence? McFaul found it hard to imagine, so he tweeted,

It's probably neither. Tillerson's remarks at the hearing are the clearest, most coherent statement of intent in U.S. policy vis-a-vis Russia heard so far this century. 

Russia, the outgoing Exxon Mobil CEO said, is a U.S. "adversary on an ideological level." Under Putin, it doesn't share the values the U.S. stands for. Yet Russia is predictable in wanting a seat at the table when global issues are discussed. Tillerson said:

They believe they deserve a rightful role in the global world order because they are a nuclear power. And they are searching as to how to establish that. And for most of the past 20-plus years since the demise of the Soviet Union they were not in a position to assert that. They have spent all of these years developing the capability to do that. I think that now what we are witnessing is an assertion on their part in order to force a conversation about what is Russia's role in the global world order. So the steps being taken are simply to make the point that Russia is here, Russia matters, and we are a force to be dealt with. That is a fairly predictable course of action they are taking.

Tillerson advocates "an open and frank dialog with Russia regarding ambitions so we know how to chart our own course." That dialogue will sometimes lead to partnership -- like in "reducing the global threat of terrorism." According to Tillerson (and indeed his new boss), defeating the Islamic State should be the first priority for the U.S. in the Middle East. In other cases, however, the U.S. must take strong action when Russian interests contradict U.S. ones. When pushed to suggest a different course of action on Ukraine than the one the Obama administration took, Tillerson didn't hesitate:

I would have recommended that the Ukraine take all of its military assets available, put them on the eastern border, provide assets with defensive weapons that are necessary just to defend themselves, announce that the U.S. is going to provide them intelligence and that either NATO or U.S. will provide air surveillance over the border to monitor movements.

That, he said, would have signaled to Russia that it couldn't go beyond taking Crimea because that would mean a direct military confrontation with the U.S. Russia, he argued, needs to see a strong response before it considers taking a step back. In Tillerson's view, the U.S. response -- sanctions as imposed by the Obama administration -- signaled weakness, not strength.

The sanctions, according to Tillerson, were a flawed approach for three reasons: They hurt U.S. business (Exxon Mobil was one example -- the sanctions scuppered a major project with Rosneft); they weren't backed by enough other countries, unlike the U.S.-initiated sanctions on Iran; and they helped consolidate Putin's domestic support. That said, Tillerson didn't advocate lifting the sanctions immediately. Rather, he's in favor of the status quo until the U.S. and Russia are clear on the new status of their relationship.

Tillerson's knowledge of Russia is that of a businessman who has made billion-dollar deals there and who understands the peculiar entanglement of business and politics in Moscow. He clearly believes in approaching the relationship like a business negotiation: Identifying areas in which give and take is possible, initial and fall-back negotiating positions and red lines that are not to be crossed. This is in line with Trump's stated vision -- Tillerson is merely more articulate and, as an engineer by training, more precise than his would-be boss.

This is also a stark contrast to Barack Obama's view of the relationship, which the outgoing president summarized during his December press conference:

The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us. They are a smaller country. They are a weaker country. Their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy, except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate. But they can impact us if we lose track of who we are. They can impact us if we abandon our values.

Obama sees Russia as insignificant and working with it as a departure from U.S. values. That vision may have stemmed from the disappointments brought on by the unsuccessful "reset" of relations during his first term, but it also pushed Putin to keep proving Obama wrong. He succeeded, demonstrating the powerlessness of U.S. sanctions to deter him in Ukraine, shunting the U.S. aside in Syria and perhaps even messing with a number of Western elections.

A negotiating process based on clearly drawn lines, which are backed by readiness to apply force, is not equal to support for Putin's human rights abuses and cross-border escapades. It can't be the beginning of a beautiful friendship; there are too many deeply rooted differences. But it can be the start of a more realistic, more predictable relationship -- the best both nuclear powers can hope for given their current irreconcilable differences of ideology.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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