Rex Tillerson Doesn't Agree With Putin ... Always

by Joseph D. Lyons

President-elect Donald Trump made public his choice for secretary of state Tuesday. His transition team released a statement early Tuesday naming the CEO of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson, to the post. But even before it was official, Moscow was already singing Tillerson's praises. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Monday that Tillerson "fulfills his responsibilities in a highly professional manner," and Putin himself has entertained Tillerson on several occasions. It's clear what Russia thinks of him, but Tillerson quotes on Putin are few and far between — luckily there are other Tillerson quotes that show the oil chief's views about the U.S.'s relationship with Russia.

The most significant on-the-record comments Tillerson made about Putin was to students at the University of Texas in February, The Wall Street Journal reported:

I have a very close relationship with [Putin.] I don’t agree with everything he’s doing. I don’t agree with everything a lot of leaders are doing. But he understands that I am a businessman. And I have invested a lot of money, our company has invested a lot of money, in Russia, very successfully.

Tillerson has had a close relationship with Putin for years given Exxon's close economic ties to the Russian state oil company Rosneft, and Tillerson's focus on Russian deals throughout his career. As The Wall Street Journal put it, "Friends and associates said few U.S. citizens are closer to Mr. Putin than Mr. Tillerson, who has known Mr. Putin since he represented Exxon’s interests in Russia during the regime of Boris Yeltsin." Back in 2012, Putin even awarded Tillerson with the Order of Friendship — friendship with Russia that is. This has worried both Republicans and Democrats in D.C. including Senators Marco Rubio and John McCain.

So what else has Tillerson said regarding Russia? Much of it was reported after the 2014 sanctions placed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, the annexation of the Crimean peninsula, and the support of anti-Kiev rebels in the country's east. But at the same time Exxon had a large deal to explore the Russian Arctic, which sanctions would not help. Here's what Tillerson said at a shareholders meeting in 2014:

We always encourage the people who are making those decisions to consider the very broad collateral damage of who are they really harming with sanctions.

Exxon has said that it lost some $1 billion thanks to the sanctions, so their opposition is not surprising. What's problematic is that what's best for Exxon may not be what's best for the United States. It could actually be what's better for Putin and Russia. Of the few other things that Tillerson has said on the record about Russia in recent years is that he hopes Exxon returns to work there when the sanctions are lifted.

"We are very anxious to get back to work there," he told analysts in March according to CNN. He added that he was glad that the Russians hadn't done things to "make the situation worse" but rather had "done things to help us hang on to the rights we have." Tillerson also went to Russia in June for an economic forum.

Assuming Tillerson makes it to the confirmation stage, he will probably have to share a few more thoughts on the Russian leader.