BERLIN – Donald Trump’s choice of Exxon Mobil Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state is proof that his administration will take a new approach to U.S. policy toward Russia, as he hinted during the campaign. The dismay about that shift in the expert and intelligence community may be a good sign: The same experts and spies have led the Obama administration into a series of missteps that have embarrassed the U.S. and helped advance President Vladimir Putin’s agenda.
Tillerson is an old Russia hand but not in the sense the U.S. foreign policy community would attach to that phrase. Although the Texan doesn’t hold a degree in Russian studies or even speak the language, his stint at the Russian division of Exxon Mobil helped propel him to the company’s top management. He is behind the revival of the Sakhalin project, started in the mid-1990s as a production-sharing agreement, though it was stalled when the Russian government expressed doubts about the format.
He is also behind the more recent cooperation with Rosneft, the state-controlled oil company. These highlights of Tillerson’s career brought him into contact with Putin’s inner circle and he was awarded the Order of Friendship by the Russian president himself when Putin had few American friends.
Tillerson is no fan of U.S. sanctions against Russia because they have scuppered a major Exxon-Rosneft project in the Arctic. At the most recent St. Petersburg Economic Forum, in June, Tillerson was asked about the sanctions. “It’s a question for the government — if there’s any U.S. government official who would like to respond,” the oilman quipped, as the audience laughed. U.S. government representatives weren’t around, of course; since 2014, the State Department has frowned on the attendance of U.S. executives at Putin’s favorite forum.
Now, Tillerson is destined for a government role himself, even as the president-elect’s team continues to fight off allegations from part of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia intervened in the campaign to get Trump elected.
President Barack Obama has been listening to the intelligence community and to the traditional Russia experts for close to eight years — it hasn’t gotten him very far. First there was the disastrous “reset” during his first term. Then there was the ineffective flailing following Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and the economic sanctions that failed to deter the aggression but allowed Putin to build a domestic consensus against the West as the ultimate enemy. It should be impossible to ignore the U.S. as a global superpower, but Putin has largely managed that in recent years, doing as he pleased in Russia’s immediate neighborhood and in Syria, rearming, forming special relationships with some U.S. allies, notably Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The U.S. expert community attempted to formulate a values-based policy toward Russia, condemning Putin as dictator and attempting to isolate him, but that strategy has done little to advance U.S. interests. Instead, Putin’s reaction to the treatment he saw as humiliating led to the expulsion from Russia of U.S. organizations that aimed to promote civil society. In Syria, the Obama administration did its utmost to avoid a direct confrontation, letting Putin bomb whomever he wanted. The U.S. also refused to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine.
It has been a schizophrenic policy. It insisted on values the U.S. ignored in countries such as Saudi Arabia, and it ensured a hostile relationship. Putin has openly mocked it, at least during Obama’s second term.
Trump can hardly do worse if he completely discards the kind of advice Obama has been getting on Russia and relies on a different kind of expertise — the kind Tillerson has. The Exxon executive’s awareness of how business is done in today’s Russia is far superior to that of career diplomats, academics and even spies. He has navigated the Kremlin and has gone to the top to make major deals in Russia’s most important industry. His perspective is values-based, in a way: He’s been trying to increase his company’s shareholder value.
Making an alliance with Putin in Syria would probably serve U.S. interests. The Russian-Iranian alliance has done a lot to help President Bashar Assad’s forces. Joint U.S.-Russian operations would ensure a quicker end to the fighting and increase chances of an eventual postwar settlement — possibly a workable partition of Syria.
Impossible as it is from the values point of view to support Russia’s depredations in Ukraine, the vocal but ineffectual U.S. support of the current Ukrainian regime hasn’t worked, either. The corrupt Kiev government is another embarrassment to its backers, and if the military containment of Russia is a U.S. goal, it should have done far more to arm and train Ukrainian troops and obtain NATO membership for the country.
It’s important for Trump’s administration to formulate precisely what U.S. interests are in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East. It will probably do so in an unsentimental way.
From a pragmatic point of view, a series of deals with Russia serves U.S. interests better than the current toothless confrontation. The moral satisfaction of not encouraging a dictator may be important, but the Obama administration’s policy ended up enabling Putin’s most reprehensible gambles. It consolidated Putin’s domestic support and protected his regime against external shocks by letting him practice austerity in the face of Western hostility.
Much as I would like Russia to join the ranks of Western democracies, and Putin’s regime to fall, I believe the U.S. has been unwillingly furthering the opposite agenda. It should stop doing so, accept Russia as a situational ally based on pragmatic economic and political considerations and work patiently with the Russian people, offering them education and travel opportunities, exposing them to Western culture and attitudes, bringing them into the world. Someday, years from now, there may be a critical mass of support for a more Western Russia that could be a reliable ally for the U.S. Until then, Tillerson’s experience making situational deals with Putin could come in handy.
Based in Berlin, writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of three novels and two nonfiction books. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.