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Here Is Why Russia Can Be Quietly Pleased With Tillerson's Senate Performance

Stuff Tillerson conceded to the Senate hawks was virtually all about the past, whereas about the future he was adamant that ‘open, frank dialogue’ is what is required

The salience of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Wednesday on Donald Trump’s nominee for the cabinet post of state secretary Rex Tillerson suggests that the next US administration will have a tough time pushing Russia policies, as it ploughs a lone furrow. But on balance Moscow ought to be quietly pleased.

Tillerson displayed a rare diplomatic acumen by keeping cool, even a subdued tone, even acquiescing with the hawkish senators who were braying for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s blood. Perhaps, he disarmed them by concurring that:

  • Russia militarily intervened in Ukraine;

  • Crimea was a ‘taking of territory’ by Russia;

  • Russia violated international law in Ukraine, Crimea and Georgia;

  • NATO’s response to Russia’s resurgence is appropriate;

  • US is firmly committed to Article 5 of NATO Charter;

  • He wouldn’t quarrel with so-called Magnitsky Law (which imposes US sanctions against Russians implicated in human rights violations); and,

  • Most important, it’s a ‘fair assumption’ that recent Russian hacking could have happened with President Vladimir Putin’s knowledge.

Prima facie, Kremlin might feel taken back that a holder of Russia’s ‘Order of Friendship’ would have such heretical views. But the likelihood is that Russia will be inclined to see the above as a ‘tactical adjustment’ on Tillerson’s part, to push back at the hawkish senators on The Hill. (Of course, Bob Corker who heads the senate foreign relations committee was noticeably supportive – as also former Defence Secretary Robert Gates and the redoubtable former senator Sam Nunn, both ‘Russia hands’, who spoke as special guests.)

The point is, the above remarks by Tillerson were virtually about a controversial past, whereas, time present and time future happen to be more relevant. And the bottom line here is that Tillerson repeatedly flagged the importance of engaging with Russia in an ‘open, frank dialogue’. Tillerson put it eloquently,

  • Words alone do not sweep away an uneven and at times contentious history between our two nations. But we need an open and frank dialogue with Russia regarding its ambitions, so that we know how to chart our own course.

He gave an insightful presentation of the ABC of dealing with Russia. He saw the Russian actions in the recent years as driven by a deep sense of humiliation by the West and aimed essentially at ‘forcing a conversation’ on the US regarding its ambitions to return to the post-Cold War global stage.

Russia’s actions indeed posed danger, but then there are caveats, too. For one thing, Russia’s actions borne out of its ambitions have been predictable and therefore it was up to the US to have come up with a response that unequivocally conveyed to the Kremlin that Russia would be held accountable for its actions.

Thus, Tillerson is all for the US to have given military help to Ukraine, including supply of lethal weapons, so that its armed forces got deployed to the country’s eastern borders with Russia and the US and its western allies gave intelligence inputs and provided air cover for Kiev to establish control over its territory and fasten its borders. He regretted that the Obama administration’s ‘weak, mixed signals’ emboldened Moscow.

Equally, Tillerson stressed that there should be no misconceptions that Russia is simply a different country with value systems that are ‘starkingly different’. He implied, perhaps, that it is futile to try to change Russia into something that it just cannot be. Yet, he insisted on the scope to have a relationship with Russia based on dialogue. Cooperation is needed where common interests are possible such as in fighting terrorism or in arms control. (He argued the case for START accord.)

But on the other hand, US must be steadfast in defending its interests and expressing its commitments to its allies who harbour worries about a resurgent Russia. In sum, Russia can be a partner and need not necessarily be an adversary. Broadly, he reminded one of former US state secretary James Baker, another professional who strayed into politics and eventually blossomed as a statesman in the dying years of the Cold War.

Where Moscow can draw comfort is that Tillerson was somewhat ambivalent about the efficacy of sanctions against Russia. This is the crux of the matter in the period ahead. While acknowledging that sanctions may constitute a ‘powerful tool’, Tillerson was inclined to see sanctions as one amongst many options and not necessarily always the best option. He pointed out that sanctions hurt US’s business interests and impaired relationships that in turn would have wider ramifications.

Three days back, Wall Street Journal had carried a riveting feature on Tillerson’s negotiating style, “honed over years at the head of one of the world’s largest oil companies, (which) shows an executive determined to hold the course, even when the landscape shifts dramatically. Personal relationships were often a deciding factor. So were deliberately theatrical tactics, such as pre-planned temper tantrums and silent stare-offs.” One may say that the Senate hearing on Wednesday was a ‘silent stare-off’. If you have time to spare, watch the video of the gruelling 9-hour hearing here.

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