In Moscow, Trump's tapping of Tillerson lifts hope of US rapprochement

Russian experts know ExxonMobil CEO and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson well, and see Trump's selection of him as a signal that genuine detente is a possibility.

Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Pool/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin presents ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson with a Russian medal in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2012.

It’s a rarity for Moscow to be enthusiastic over a US president's choice for secretary of State. It certainly wasn’t the case for either of the past two secretaries, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.

So Donald Trump's decision Tuesday to nominate ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson is proving to be a pleasant surprise to Russia.

Even more than the election of Mr. Trump, which brought Russia's State Duma to its feet in a standing ovation, the nomination of Mr. Tillerson seems evidence to Russians close to the Kremlin that the new administration will move seriously to implement Mr. Trump's sketchy campaign promises about restoring good relations.

Tillerson is well known and liked in Moscow, where he has been doing business for almost 20 years, but he is also seen as a completely different type than the US diplomats the Russians have regularly dealt with. "Tillerson as Secretary of State would signify the greatest discontinuity in US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War," tweeted Dmitry Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center, before the announcement.

Sergei Karaganov, one of Russia's most senior foreign policy hands, says the difference is that Tillerson is a hard-nosed pragmatist who will focus on getting things done, and leave aside the many political and philosophical issues where Russia and the US will never agree. Like many in Moscow's upper circles, Mr. Karaganov has met Tillerson and says that his ratification would be a signal that genuine and lasting detente between the two powers is a real possibility.

"We know him, and that's good. But it's mainly what we know about him, which is that he's a realist who is not driven by ideology," he says. "If the Trump administration survives, and takes hold, I for one will start to believe that we can re-align this relationship in ways that will stress areas of concord and cooperation, and find ways to manage the differences."

Tillerson took charge of Exxon's operations in Russia in 1998, and navigated the company through major difficulties after Vladimir Putin came to power and the Kremlin demanded that earlier oil-and-gas deals be revised in favor of Russia's state energy giants Gazprom and Rosneft. In 2011, as Exxon CEO, he negotiated a long-range, multi-billion dollar joint venture with Rosneft to explore for oil in Russia's Arctic.

Mr. Putin, who has met frequently with Tillerson, awarded him the highest honor Russia can bestow on a foreigner, The Order of Friendship, in 2013.

The imposition of sanctions by the US in punishment for Russia's annexation of Crimea forced the mothballing of the Arctic project, and Exxon reportedly lost $1 billion as a result. Tillerson has since lobbied hard against the sanctions, a fact that could present a problem for him in Senate hearings.

"I know that the Washington establishment will throw everything at Tillerson, especially his supposed 'friendship' with Putin," says Karaganov. "But I cannot imagine a person in his position being corruptible, either by ideology or money. We knew him as a tough negotiator, who was a great patriot of his company. We assume he'll be a patriot of the US. This is actually what Russian leaders want, a man sitting across the table who will drive a hard but viable and lasting bargain."

Sergei Markov, a past adviser to Putin, says the whole foreign policy team that Trump is assembling makes it look like a break with past practices may be imminent.

"We see Gen. [James] Mattis being named to be Defense secretary, and that looks to us like someone who could steer military cooperation between the US and Russia away from constantly obstructing each other and toward cooperation to defeat terrorism. Michael Flynn, who's going to be White House national security adviser, is a person who advocates clear-eyed cooperation with Russia in areas that matter to both of us," Mr. Markov says. "We don't imagine these people are special friends of ours, or anything like that, but it will be very refreshing to have diplomatic counterparts who are interested in practical deal-making.

"Our experience over the past decade and a half is that we don't have negotiations in any real sense, we just get lectures and ultimatums from our US counterparts," Markov adds. "Even where there was a bit of substantive discussion lately, over Syria, the US position kept changing and nothing was accomplished."

But some Russian experts are more skeptical.

"It seems to me there are a lot of illusions on both sides. Russians and Americans really don't know each other anymore, if they ever did," says Alexander Konovalov, head of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "I suspect there will be a hard awakening for Trump's people, when they realize that making deals in the very complex realm of diplomacy is not much like the business world."

"Putin knows what he wants," Mr. Konovalov says, "but I'm not sure Trump has a very clear idea how to handle Russia."

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