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Rex Tillerson says the U.S. should be tougher on Russia but avoids committing to sanctions

In his confirmation hearings Wednesday, former Exxon Mobil CEO and secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson advocated a surprisingly aggressive series of military measures he thinks the U.S. should have taken in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. But he was less clear about whether the U.S. should continue with sanctions against Russia, a key area of business interest for the global oil giant he recently led.


At the hearing in Washington, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee focused on the relationship between Tillerson and Russia’s autocratic leader Vladimir Putin. Tillerson has a long-standing relationship with Putin stemming from Exxon Mobil’s extensive investments in the oil-rich nation. Tillerson was even given an Order of Friendship award by Russia in 2013.

But Tillerson took a hawkish tone as he spoke to the panel, describing the annexation of Crimea as “taking of territory that was not theirs” and Russia’s intervention in eastern Ukraine as an “illegal action.”

Tillerson said he would have advised a stronger response from the U.S., including giving defensive military weapons to Ukrainian forces. “I would have recommended that the Ukraine take all its military assets it had available, put them on that eastern border,” he said. “Provided those assets with defensive weapons that are necessary just to defend themselves.”

That represents an important change in U.S. policy, as up until now the U.S. has primarily provided nonlethal aid to the country such as vehicles and communications equipment.

“So your recommendation would have been to do a more robust supply of military?” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., asked Tillerson.

“Yes sir,” Mr. Tillerson answered. “I think what Russian leadership would have understood is a powerful response.”

Tillerson was less aggressive about how economic weapons should be deployed against Russia, however. His first response to questions about sanctions from Democratic New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez stressed the downside of sanctions, with regard to their impact on U.S. businesses.


“The fact is, sanctions in order to be implemented, do impact American business interests,” Tillerson said, stressing that while sanctions could be an important tool, they should be crafted in a way that they wouldn’t put U.S. business at a disadvantage.

Tillerson’s opponents have suggested a conflict of interest inherently exists in appointing a former oil executive with a history of extensive dealings in Russia to run the State Department. That’s especially noteworthy given that sanctions against Russia have hampered Exxon Mobil, as well as recent conclusions from the U.S. intelligence community that Russia engaged in a hacking campaign aimed at interfering with the U.S. election.

When Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio asked if Tillerson would advise Trump to sign a bill imposing sanctions on Russia for such cyber attacks, Tillerson said he’d have concerns about doing that.

“There could be whole array of important issues that could be a consideration, including trading issues,” he said, by way of explanation.

Rubio, considered a key vote for Tillerson’s nomination, indicated that he found Tillerson’s answer “troubling.”