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By Henry Meyer and Ilya Arkhipov
(Bloomberg) — With two decades of deal-making in Russia’s vital oil industry under his belt, Rex Tillerson is Vladimir Putin’s kind of man.
The Exxon Mobil Corp. chief is also in Donald Trump’s sights for secretary of state, fueling optimism in Moscow that a longed-for thaw in relations is near.
If nominated and confirmed, Tillerson would join another supporter of closer cooperation with Russia at the top of America’s policy-making apparatus, Michael Flynn, the president-elect’s national security adviser. Add in Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, retired General James Mattis, who’s viewed in Moscow as more pragmatic than his predecessors, and the Kremlin couldn’t ask for much more, according to Sergei Markov, a consultant to Putin’s staff.
“This is a fantastic team,” Markov said by phone from the Russian capital on Sunday. “These are people that Russia can do business with.”
Russia is banking on better relations with the incoming Trump administration to help it end a stretch of international isolation and emerge from its longest recession in two decades. The downturn was triggered by a collapse in oil prices and made worse by the sanctions the U.S. and EU imposed over Putin’s support for the insurgency in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.
For years, Putin has railed against the U.S. for criticizing him on issues like Ukraine and limits on democracy, which is 25 years old in Russia this year, and not battling terrorism together. Trump, who’s pledged to work with Russia to defeat Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, represents the best chance Putin has had as president to forge a productive partnership with his Cold War foe.
While Tillerson’s foreign policy positions are largely a mystery, he criticized the Russian sanctions in 2014 for being ineffective. On Sunday, Trump said the 64-year-old Exxon boss’s experience overseeing operations in dozens of countries is just what the U.S. needs in negotiating with world leaders.
Flynn, who was paid to speak at an event for RT state television that Putin attended in Moscow last year, is vocal in his view that Islamic extremism is the greatest threat to the U.S. and advocates joining forces with Russia. Mattis is more hawkish on Putin, but he’s also criticized President Barack Obama for not doing more to recruit allies to fight terrorist groups in the Middle East.
The three appointments taken together would constitute a “dream team” for U.S.-Russia relations, according to Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to Trump who’s come under criticism himself for his ties to Russia.
“These future senior officials represent a veritable American siloviki,” Page said, referring to the group of men around Putin with influence over the spy agencies and the military. “The chances of them meshing well is very high.”
Trump, who’s doubted Obama administration claims that Putin tried to tilt the election for the billionaire through hacking and propaganda, has said he’d be more respectful of Russia’s sphere of influence than Obama and consider lifting sanctions. A former senior National Security Council official predicted Trump would lift those penalties within weeks of taking office.
“Should Putin be pleased? Yes,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of Eurasia Group, a New York-based political consultancy. “It beats the heck out of Obama going after him all day.”
But Tillerson’s popularity in Moscow is being seen as a liability by a growing chorus of lawmakers in Washington.
Leading members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, have expressed alarm at the possibility of Tillerson, who has no experience in government, vaulting into a position that ranks fourth in line to the presidency.
“Being a ‘friend of Vladimir’ is not an attribute I am hoping for,” tweeted Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who would consider a Tillerson nomination as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In what may mean the president-elect is still evaluating reaction to the choice, Trump said Sunday on Twitter: “Whether I choose him or not for ‘State’ – Rex Tillerson, the Chairman & CEO of ExxonMobil, is a world class player and dealmaker. Stay tuned!”
Dmitri Trenin, who runs the Carnegie Moscow Center, said a Secretary of State Tillerson would signify “the greatest discontinuity in U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War” and be applauded in Russia.
Tillerson, who helped establish the biggest U.S. oil company’s presence in Russia in the 1990s, met then-premier Putin for the first time in 1999 on the remote Far East island of Sakhalin, where Exxon has a major project.
In 2011, Putin personally presided over the signing of a deal between Exxon and state-owned Rosneft that gave the U.S. company access to potentially tens of billions of barrels of oil in Arctic deposits. Two years later, he awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, one of the highest honors for foreigners.
Tillerson’s possible elevation would be a “sensation,’ said Alexei Pushkov, a member of the defense and security committee of parliament’s upper house.
Putin and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, who have worked together since the 1990s, both consider Tillerson “a quintessential no-nonsense Texan with a very businesslike attitude,” said Konstantin Von Eggert, a former Exxon vice president in Russia.
Tillerson has acted “professionally” as Exxon CEO, a quality the Kremlin will look for in the next secretary of state, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said Monday. Still, there’s a big difference between being the top U.S. diplomat and heading even a major corporation, he said.
Putin has publicly expressed admiration and respect for the American, a rarity for the Russian president. “Mr. Tillerson, I am very happy to see you,” Putin said at the beginning of talks in 2012, according to a Kremlin transcript. “This is already our second meeting in a short span of time and there is a good explanation for this: increasingly close relations are being forged between your company and Russian market players.”
© 2016 Bloomberg L.P
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