WASHINGTON -- U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state has portrayed Russia as a dangerous and destabilizing global actor that disregards U.S. interests, but said Moscow is "not unpredictable" and that Washington must improve its understanding of the Kremlin's thinking.
In a January 11 confirmation hearing focusing largely on Russia, former ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Russia "poses a danger" and that U.S. allies had a right to be alarmed about a "resurgent Russia."
"While Russia seeks respect and relevance on the global stage, its recent activities have disregarded America's interests," Tillerson, the recipient of a state friendship award from President Vladimir Putin, added in prepared opening remarks to lawmakers.
The hearing comes amid scrutiny of the ties that Tillerson, 64, has had with the Russian government based on ExxonMobil’s extensive business dealings in the country.
These included an Arctic development deal with state-owned oil giant Rosneft that was halted after Washington imposed sanctions on Russia in response to its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and backing of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
His confirmation hearing also comes in the wake of allegations by U.S. intelligence that Russia used cyberattacks to meddle in the presidential election and help Trump win -- an assessment that the Republican president-elect has publicly cast doubt on but appeared to endorse on January 11.
Tillerson: U.S. Must Be 'Clear-Eyed' About Russian 'Danger'
The firm stance on Russia that Tillerson assumed during the hearing appeared likely to assuage some concerns among leading U.S. senators that Tillerson could take a softer line on Russia. However, he elicited surprise from senators when he said he had not had a conversation with Trump about U.S. policy on Russia.
Trump says he wants to improve relations with Moscow that have been badly strained over the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, and that he would consider lifting U.S. sanctions on Moscow imposed in response to the Crimea annexation.
Tillerson called Russia an "adversary" but said greater bilateral cooperation would be positive, adding that Washington had failed to recognize that "Russia does not think like we do" and stressing the importance of "an open and frank dialogue with Russia regarding its own ambitions."
"Where cooperation with Russia based on common interests is possible, such as reducing the global threat of terrorism, we ought to explore these options," Tillerson said. "Where important differences remain, we should be steadfast in defending the interests of America and her allies."
He added that "Russia must know that we will be accountable to our commitments and those of our allies, and that Russia must be held to account for its actions."
Trump has advocated joining up with Russia to fight Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria, where Moscow has been accused of indiscriminate bombing in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s fight against the extremist group and more moderate opposition forces, some of which have received U.S. backing.
Pressed by Republican Senator Marco Rubio (Republican-Florida) on whether Putin’s is a war criminal due to his intervention in Syria, Tillerson said, "I would not use that term."
Tillerson: U.S. Must Win 'War Of Ideas' To Defeat 'Radical Islam'
Tillerson, who has questioned the wisdom of the Ukraine-related sanctions, criticized the administration of outgoing President Barack Obama for its response to the Crimea land grab, saying it emboldened Russia to back separatists in eastern Ukraine with weapons and soldiers.
Tillerson told lawmakers that Washington should have advised Ukraine to move all available military assets to its eastern border and provide those assets with defensive weapons, U.S. or NATO air surveillance, and intelligence.
He added that Russia's leadership saw the Obama administration's response to Crimea as "weak."
Russia denies that it has sent troops and weapons to back the separatists in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 9,750 people since April 2014, despite substantial evidence of such support.
Obama's executive order declaring a national emergency that underpins the Ukraine sanctions is set to expire in March, meaning Trump would have around six weeks after his January 20 inauguration to make a decision on whether to renew it, cancel it, or let it expire.
Asked whether he believes now is the right time to lift Ukraine-related sanctions, Tillerson said, "I would leave things in the status quo so we are able to convey this can go either way."
On Russian Hacking Allegations
Answering questions about the U.S. intelligence accusations that Russia used cyberattacks and other tools in a bid to tilt the November 8 presidential election toward Trump, Tillerson said he had not seen the classified intelligence report making those allegations.
But he said he had read the declassified report released on January 6, adding that it "clearly is troubling."
Tillerson said, however, that he was "not in position" to determine the accuracy of the assessment by U.S. intelligence that Putin ordered the campaign to interfere in the election.
But he said it was "a fair assumption" that Putin would have been aware of such an interference effort.
Russia denies it was behind the theft of Democratic e-mails that were later published by WikiLeaks and others. Those e-mails are widely seen as having damaged the campaign of Trump's Democratic opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
After publicly questioning U.S. intelligence findings on Russia's alleged hacking, Trump on January 11 echoed the conclusions that Putin personally ordered the interference campaign.
"He shouldn't be doing it. He won't be doing it. Russia will have much greater respect when I'm leading than when other people are leading" the country, Trump told reporters in Manhattan during his first news conference since July and likely his last before he formally takes office.
Tillerson declined to say whether he would support maintaining recent sanctions that Obama ordered against Russia in response to the theft of e-mails from the Democratic National Committee, the Clinton campaign, and other U.S. political organizations.
Senator Bob Corker (Republican-Tennessee), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that he expected Tillerson to be confirmed as secretary of state by the Republican-controlled Senate.
Prominent Republicans in Congress have been among the most vocal critics of Trump's statements on Russia -- including positive words about Putin and remarks questioning the U.S. commitment to NATO members who don't maintain sufficient defense spending.
Tillerson told the confirmation hearing that the defense guarantee, stipulated by Article 5 of the NATO charter, was inviolable.
Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, told RFE/RL that Tillerson sounded "relatively hawkish" on Russia and at many times at odds with Trump's approach to Moscow.
"[He] essentially sounded like a normal Republican prior to Trump's election would have sounded on Russia. But obviously that's somewhat at odds with the rhetoric that Trump has offered on Russia throughout the campaign, and even in the [January 11 Trump] press conference that just happened," Drezner said.
When asked at his press conference whether Putin attempted to help him defeat Clinton, Trump replied, "If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability."
Tillerson stressed at the hearing that if confirmed by the Senate, he will not diverge from the Trump administration's policies.
But he was more reserved than Trump on the landmark nuclear deal between Iran and world powers to curb Tehran's nuclear program.
During the presidential campaign, Trump pledged that he would "tear up" the accord, though he has also said would be hard to destroy because it has been endorsed by a UN resolution.
Tillerson said he supported a "full review" of the Iran nuclear deal and advocated tighter monitoring to guarantee that Tehran does not violate it.
"We need...to examine our ability to clarify whether Iran is complying," Tillerson told lawmakers.
With reporting by AP and Reuters