MOSCOW - When U.S. Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson appeared before the U.S. Senate for his confirmation hearing last week, pundits and politicians in Moscow were watching closely for signals as to the new administration’s stance on Russia.
Their reactions included upbeat pragmatism to an “I-told-you-so” warning that a Russia hawk could be entering President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet. Overall, the comments painted a much more sober take on a Trump presidency than the jubilation displayed by many in Russia after his surprise victory in November.
On the Vesti FM state radio station, prominent pro-Kremlin journalist Vladimir Solovyov chided those Russians who expressed surprise at what many heard as a hawkish tone in Tillerson’s comments.
“For our dear listeners I will for the 156th time, although it is fashionable to say 150th, repeat that Tillerson is not Major Vikhr [a Russian TV superhero], and Trump is not Colonel Isayev, Stierlitz [a fictional Soviet superspy akin to James Bond],” Solovyov said.
“They are both patriots of the U.S. One will, if confirmed, become the secretary of state. The second will, if a few days pass well, move from the status of president-elect to the status of president of the U.S. They in no way intend to carry out promises they never made to Russia. For them, the priority is the United States and their policies,” he added.
A Crimea solution?
Leonid Slutsky, head of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee, told the Interfax news agency that he thought Tillerson’s testimony suggested Washington might be amenable to reaching a deal with Moscow over Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula seized by Russia in March 2014.
“If we look deeper,” he said, “I was particularly interested by statements not only about sanctions, cyberattacks and so on — they are to be expected — but the ones on the question of Crimea. Tillerson, in particular, noted that the United States will only recognize the unification of Crimea with Russia in the event that the current situation around the peninsula can be regulated in a way that satisfies Ukraine,” Slutsky was quoted as saying.
“As we know Ukraine is a territory managed externally and the remote control is located in Washington. That is to say — could this be the beginning of the process of presenting conditions for recognition instead of the categorical ‘give back Crimea’”?
Aleksei Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy radio, read Tillerson’s comments that, in 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he would have supplied weapons and U.S. intelligence to Ukraine to defend against an incursion in the east of the country.
“Who is this man?" Venediktov asked. “This is a man who bears the [Russian] Order of Friendship received from Igor Ivanovich Sechin and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.”
“Some people say the Republicans are going to be pragmatists. But I would say their pragmatism is in their strictness. We have just heard that from Tillerson and we will hear that from Trump. That is to say, ‘Guys, the rules are that we are a great power, we are a superpower and you are either with us or against us.’ Ever since this Trump story began I said this is what would happen. That’s how it’s ended up,” he added.
On Thursday, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the Kremlin had noted Tillerson’s stance on Crimea, but rejected it.
“We are not in agreement with that formulation and will explain our position,” the president’s spokesman said in comments carried by Interfax.
Peskov declined to comment on Tillerson’s assertion that Russia invaded eastern Ukraine and that it was necessary to supply Kyiv with weapons.
“I would leave this without a reaction. We will explain to Secretary of State Tillerson all the relevant questions when they arise,” he said.
Tillerson vs Trump
The pro-Kremlin Vzgylad news and commentary website contrasted Tillerson’s hearings in the Senate with Trump’s press conference the same day, the first since his election, noting the former’s “hawkish” tone.
“The speech by Tillerson, who was named the most pro-Russia of the possible candidates for secretary of state, sounded considerably harsher [than Trump’s],” Vzgylad said.
Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the parliamentary committee on education, described the statements from Trump and Tillerson as moderate in comments to the TASS news agency.
“In general, if we compare them to what could have been said, these statements look entirely moderate,” Nikonov said. He added that Tillerson “was careful throughout, meeting the primary goal of getting confirmed by the Senate as secretary of state.”
Nonetheless, he said, Tillerson had “taken the maximum pro-Russian stance on the questions.”
However, Nikonov rejected Tillerson’s proposed condition for the recognition of Ukrainian Crimea as Russian territory.
“Russia has absolutely no need for anyone to recognize Crimea. This is a part of Russia and no part of Russia requires recognition,” Nikonov said.