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How Is Rex Tillerson, Trump's Secretary of State Pick, Going to Handle Russia?

Rex Tillerson's selection has raised eyebrows because of his close ties to Russia and potential conflicts of interest.

by Allie Conti
Dec 14 2016, 3:30pm

Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state, at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, a gathering of politicians, experts, and business leaders, earlier this year. Photo by Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Early Tuesday morning, President-Elect Donald Trump officially announced—via Twitter, of course—his pick for secretary of state: Rex Tillerson, a Texan who has spent his entire career working for ExxonMobil and ran the company since 2004. The 64-year-old oilman's total lack of government experience is a common trait among Trump's cabinet-level picks, but what has alarmed most critics is Tillerson's ties to Russia—as CEO and chairman of Exxon, he's made many deals with Russian government–owned oil company Rosneft, and was given an award by Russian president Vladimir Putin; some of Exxon's deals in the country have also been held up by US sanctions.

Tillerson's relationship with Russia makes sense in context. There's a lot of oil there, and as Steve Coll, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of a book on Exxon, explained in the New Yorker, oil projects do better in countries where the political situation is unchanging, which often means they flourish under authoritarian leaders. But his Russian connections are striking given Trump's occasional praise of Putin, his advisers' links to Russia, and his dismissal of intelligence reports that Russia was behind hacks into the emails of his Democratic opponents.

To learn more about what all this means for US-Russia relations, I called Harlow Robinson, a history professor at Northeastern University, who told me among other things that Tillerson's conflicts of interests were unprecedented and that Russian hackers will never relent. Here's what we talked about.

VICE: What have US-Russia relations been like under Obama?
Harlow Robinson: Well, it has not been very good. I would say it's deteriorated to a certain degree. Certainly the rhetoric has become much more negative on both sides, particularly compared to the 1990s when we had sort of a love-fest going on between [Boris] Yeltsin and [Bill] Clinton. So definitely since 2000 it's been sort of downhill, and I would say more so in the past few years.

I was in Russia in June, and the official news is just remarkably anti-American. But what's so confusing is that at the same time, every corner in Russian cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg has fast food outlets like Starbucks or KFC or Pizza Hut or McDonalds. Young Russians are looking at American TV and film and are listening to pop music. So the disconnect between the rhetoric emanating from the top and the reality of widespread Americanism in life is very odd.

Can you explain what the anti-American rhetoric of the Russian government looks like––what exactly the US is being criticized for and how?
Remember that the television there now is basically run by the government. So everything that's going wrong in the world is blamed on America. There's a very Russo-centric view. And even the print outlets are much reduced in importance. Many of the journalists who had been critical of Putin have left the country or have been silenced in various ways. So the change in the media climate has really been quite dramatic in the past five to ten years.

The sanctions that have been imposed after what happened in Ukraine [is being spun as], "America is intent on wrecking the Russian economy." And it's a very real thing. My young friends there are much less able to travel, their salaries are now worth about half of what they once were in dollars. So it's looking for scapegoats also on Putin's part. The economy in Russia is not doing very well, and there's high unemployment. Actually, there are a lot of the same kind of problems that we have in areas of this country that Trump had a lot of appeal––people have been thrown out of work in traditional industries. So Putin has been quite effective in throwing the blame at the West for this economic deterioration and for ISIS and so on.

Has any of this changed since Trump started running for president and habitually praising Putin?
I think it's a little early to say, but the Russians haven't been very vocal about Trump. They were very vocal about anti-Obama and especially with anti-Hillary statements. And Putin, of course, has made statements that he admires him, and everything that Putin says is covered absolutely slavishly. And he's very popular.

So what does the appointment of Tillerson mean for relations going forward?
This is clearly a big shift in how to deal with international affairs generally––not only Russia––to appoint somebody who's a businessman with no experience in public service or any kind of diplomatic world. And I think what's troubling to a lot of people is that he does have these very deep commercial interests in Russia and that he does have this very strong personal relationship with Putin. It certainly raises a lot of concerns about whether he'll be able to operate objectively. And certainly it's a huge turn in the way America has thought of Russia in recent years, at least since Putin has come to office. Tillerson seems to have a very different view of this and so does Trump. I think it's also worrisome that what Putin's motives really are in praising Trump––and if the [reports of] hacking are also true––why they were promoting his election. I think maybe they feel they can play him rather easily somehow and this is going to give him a lot more maneuvering room in the economic and international arena.

Do you think that, after all of this, Russian intelligence might stop targeting US or European institutions,?
I don't think this will mean they will stop at all. If anything, I think it will be empowering for them to see that they've had an impact. There are all kinds of other ways that the Russians are using the internet and hacking. In Germany, they're also starting to do the same kinds of things around Angela Merkel, and also they're using these kinds of tactics against their domestic foes.

They're planting compromising material on the websites of Russians who live abroad and have been critical of the regime. I don't know if you saw the big piece in the New York Times recently about Vladimir Bukovsky, a very well known dissident who lives in London and has been accused of trafficking in child pornography. It seems like it's entirely been invented, like stuff has been planted on his computer, but he's been charged with these crimes. So, no, I think this is only the beginning.

What would be an effective way to get Russia to stop interfering in elections or occupying their neighbors? Apparently economic sanctions haven't been effective.
What I think we need to see is people in Congress actually taking some action. Obama is a lame duck; he's not gonna be able to do a lot. It's really up to influential people in Congress to do the shaming thing, which has been effective in other cases, like that of North Korea. And this hacking isn't new. Remember the North Koreans hacking Sony's website? This is happening globally now, and if there's not a moral pushback on the part of people in power in Congress... Yes some of the Republicans are saying that they don't agree, but it's really mild, and it's not that forceful.

How will Trump's denial of Russians being behind the hacking affect relations?
We don't totally know yet. He's not president yet, and as we have seen with Trump, he will often say one thing and then not carry through on it. Like, "Oh, I'm gonna prosecute Hillary," and then, "Oh, no, I'm not." But certainly I myself find very troubling these accusations that the CIA is incompetent, which is basically what he's saying. This is just a really dangerous road to go down in my opinion. Because if we start undermining these objective agencies that are part of strategic defense, then we're really heading for something that's totally new territory.

How is the entirety of this going to affect our place within the rest of the world? What pieces will shift?
I think it's going to be very difficult, especially with certain countries. Germany, for example, is not a great fan of Putin, and Russians have done a lot of meddling in Germany, too. And certainly in the UK. It's going to call in question all of our assumptions about what side we're on, which is really kind of scary. One doesn't want to demonize Russia as a country, but the fact is that it's now ruled by a very small number of people. There is the alleged democracy, but in fact, it's Putin and a small circle of people around him who are allowed to do whatever they want.

So we have to distinguish between the Russians and their government, because, just like many Americans, they are just kind of pawns in this. And I do have some hope that in Russia things will change with time, because younger Russians are so much more sophisticated, they've traveled. This is a totally new thing that would have been impossible under the Soviet Union, and it will have to have an effect eventually.

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.