Worldview: Rex Tillerson makes good first impression

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Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

Rex Tillerson's testimony at Wednesday's Senate confirmation hearing for secretary of state offered some relief for those worried about a foreign policy meltdown under Donald Trump.

The former Exxon Mobil CEO got a bipartisan grilling about his close ties to top Russian leaders. Senators wanted to know if Tillerson could pivot from pursuit of oil in the Russian Arctic to protecting U.S. interests from a hostile Kremlin.

Not all his answers were clear. But he came across as well-informed and serious (in comparison with the president-elect's performance at a press conference in New York City). Most surprising, his positions often failed to track with those of Trump, including on Russia.

This raises an obvious and fascinating question: Will Trump even listen to Tillerson's advice? Nobody knows.

There was good reason why members of the Senate Foreign Relations committee gave Tillerson such a grilling. His close relationships with Vladimir Putin, and with Putin's key ally, the much-feared Igor Sechin, led to a half-billion-dollar joint venture for Exxon Mobil in the Russian Arctic. In 2013, Putin bestowed the Order of Friendship on Tillerson.

In June 2014, after Russia had seized Crimea and was attacking eastern Ukraine, Tillerson was schmoozing with Sechin at an oil conference in Moscow. So senators wanted to know whether Tillerson would support continuing the sanctions imposed on Moscow for its Ukraine aggression - including sanctions on Sechin and the Rosneft state oil company he heads. Exxon Mobil reportedly lobbied to end those sanctions, because they froze the arctic deal.

The senators also wanted to know if Tillerson backed Putin's claim that Russia was legally entitled to annex Crimea. Trump has indicated he'd consider that claim and might drop the sanctions.

"No, Russia does not have legal claim to Crimea," Tillerson replied. "Russia was taking territory that was not theirs."

As for sanctions, he insisted Exxon had never lobbied to end sanctions over Ukraine, only to get a brief reprieve so they could wind up their Arctic-drilling operation. He also insisted he supported sanctions so long as they did not unduly penalize U.S. companies over European competitors (that reply is a bit wobbly). "Sanctions are an important tool," he added.

Where things really got interesting, however, was when Tillerson laid out why the Obama team should have responded more firmly to Russia's invasion of Crimea. Putin would move forward, Tillerson made clear, when he met no resistance, and stop when he did.

Tillerson said the Russian leader moved on eastern Ukraine because there was no firm military response to the taking of Crimea. Washington should have provided intelligence and air support to Ukrainian military forces, which should have been moved entirely to its eastern border.

At that time, Ukrainian forces were so weak such a move might not have worked, but the concept is clear: an act of force by Russia "required a proportionate show of force" to deter Russia from moving forward.

Russia, he says, has a long-term geographical plan to reestablish what it sees as its role in the world order. "If they don't receive a response, they will execute the next step of that plan," Tillerson said. That, he added, doesn't rule out cooperation where interests converge - as happened on Afghanistan - but "on other issues we may be adversaries."

Tillerson said he supported NATO, along with enhanced NATO backing for the Baltic nations and Poland - states Moscow has been threatening. The oilman refused Florida Republican Marco Rubio's insistence that he brand Putin a "war criminal." But he said he was troubled by the Jan. 26 U.S. intel report on Russian hacking and that it was a "fair assumption" Putin was behind it.

Contrast that hard-nosed approach with the Trump news conference, where the president-elect finally admitted to Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee but blew it off - and refused to discuss the hacks in any broader strategic context.

Instead, Trump insisted the hacking was useful because it reflected badly on Hillary Clinton, and once again praised Putin. "If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset," he stated.

In other words, everything was about him, with no mention of Putin's strategic goal of undermining the United States.

Will Tillerson be able to persuade his boss to look at the big strategic picture? Will the oilman be able to convince Trump that Putin's flattery is meant as manipulation? Tillerson appears able to put Kremlin "friendships" into proper perspective, but we'll have to see him in action.

Ditto, for what impact he will have on his boss' thinking. Tillerson admitted that Trump had not yet discussed Russia with him, despite the centrality of that issue to the oilman's bio.

Even GOP legislators grasped the challenge Tillerson will face. Sen. Todd Young (R., Ind.) asked how the secretary-designate would ensure that "the legs were not cut out from under him" by Trump tweets when he was visiting foreign capitals.

"It would be my expectation," Tillerson delicately replied, "that any way the president chose to communicate would facilitate the policy we'd agreed on."

"Any contingency plan?" Young asked. Tillerson held up his cell phone and replied, "I have his number and he's promised to answer."

"Let's hope for the best," said Young.

trubin@phillynews.com