Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jan. 11, 2017.
Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jan. 11, 2017.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's secretary of state nominee, Rex Tillerson, says Russia poses a danger to the U.S. and "its recent activities have disregarded American interests."

"Russia must be held accountable for its actions" such as its invasion of Ukraine, Tillerson said during his confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Tillerson told the lawmakers that “Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed by a resurgent Russia,” and said Trump has urged closer relations with Russia to address a resurgence that occurred in the "absence of American leadership."

He cited the need for "open and frank dialogue with Russia regarding its ambition" so the United States can plan its course.

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Russia's increased assertiveness, Tillerson said, stems from the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, a federation of Eurasian countries governed by the Communist Party in Moscow. "Russia, more than anything, wants to re-establish its role in the global world order," he said.

Tillerson said the U.S. is "not likely to ever be friends" with Russia, noting that values between the two countries are "starkly different." But he maintained that "dialog is critical" so that matters of mutual interest to the U.S. and Russia do not "spin out of control."

The former ExxonMobil CEO faced tough questioning from Senator Marco Rubio, who withdrew from the Republican party's presidential primary race in 2016, and previously expressed concern about Tillerson’s ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rubio challenged Tillerson to label Putin as a war criminal because of Russia's military actions in the Syrian civil war. Tillerson declined to do so, saying "I would not use that term."

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, and
FILE - Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, and Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil's chief executive smile during a signing ceremony in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Aug. 30, 2011.

Tillerson did acknowledge it was "a fair assumption" that Putin was aware of Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election. He said he was not aware of details in the report on Russian hacking but did read the declassified version that was released last week.


Tillerson said he favored maintaining current sanctions against Russia until the Trump administration takes office, despite his assertion that sanctions disrupt U.S. businesses. Sanctions cost ExxonMobil hundreds of millions of dollars after the U.S. imposed them on Russia after that country's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

He said sanctions are a "powerful tool" but added the "intent behind the sanctions is to disrupt that country's access to American business investment, money flows, technology."

The secretary of state nominee said if China does not properly enforce U.N. sanctions against North Korea, the U.S. should consider ways to compel China to comply. In September, U.N. sanctions were tightened to restrict exports of North Korean coal to China. China, a long-standing ally of North Korea, accounts for more than 90 percent of trade with the isolated country.

FILE - This aerial photo taken through a glass win
FILE - This aerial photo taken through a glass window of a military plane shows China's alleged on-going reclamation of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, May 11, 2015.

South China Sea

Tillerson also addressed China's island-building in the South China Sea. He called China's actions in the region "an illegal taking of disputed areas without regard for international norms."

Tillerson, 64, recently resigned from ExxonMobil. His massive oil deals with Russia could complicate his necessary confirmation in the Senate, where several key lawmakers have already said they are troubled by his close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in 2013 gave Tillerson Russia's Order of Friendship, an honor reserved for foreigners.

In 2011, Tillerson signed a deal with the state-owned Russian oil company Rosneft for cooperation on oil exploration and production, and since then, the companies have collaborated on at least 10 joint ventures.

Protesters led by Greenpeace protest the Tillerson
Protesters led by Greenpeace protest the Tillerson confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, January 11, 2017 (K. Gypson / VOA)

The 2011 deal, valued at around $300 billion at the time, was for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic. When actual drilling had just begun, three years later, Western sanctions imposed on Russia due to its intervention in the Ukraine crisis brought work to a halt.

Environmental concerns are another potential trouble spot for Tillerson's confirmation. Attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts have subpoenaed ExxonMobil and accused it of suppressing internal research showing that it knew about the impact of fossil fuels on climate change.

During questioning, Tillerson acknowledged climate change is a man-made problem and the risk is great enough to warrant action. He did not specify what can be done to mitigate the effects of global warming. 

Tillerson, trained as a civil engineer, joined ExxonMobil right after he graduated from the University of Texas and moved up the corporate ranks over the next four decades. He is known for his international deal-making skills, and is said to have good relations with a number of heads of state around the globe, which would be an important asset for the top U.S. diplomat.