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Russian FM hails ‘pragmatism’ of incoming US secretary Tillerson

ExxonMobil CEO has claimed ‘very close relationship’ with Moscow, received award from Putin for advancing ties

In this June 15, 2012, file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson shake hands at a signing ceremony of an agreement between state-controlled Russian oil company Rosneft and ExxonMobil at the Black Sea port of Tuapse, southern Russia. (Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA-Novosti, Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool, File)
In this June 15, 2012, file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson shake hands at a signing ceremony of an agreement between state-controlled Russian oil company Rosneft and ExxonMobil at the Black Sea port of Tuapse, southern Russia. (Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA-Novosti, Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool, File)

Russia’s foreign minister said the “pragmatism” of the nominee for the next US secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, is a good basis for future relations.

Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday in the Serbian capital that both President-elect Donald Trump and Tillerson “have not been against our cooperation.”

Lavrov said, “we expect that this pragmatism will be a good foundation for building mutually beneficial cooperation” between the US and Russia.

Tillerson has claimed to have a “very close relationship” with Russian President Vladimir Putin and will have deep knowledge of the country’s power structure, having led ExxonMobil into a rare oil exploration deal with Russia’s state-owned energy company.

His ties, however, could cast a shadow over important decisions on relations with Russia, from whether to extend sanctions to the handling of intelligence reports that Russia interfered with the US presidential election to help Trump.

Rudy Giuliani, at one time in the running for the post, said Trump has chosen someone who has the experience to understand the world.

“I’m okay with the choice,” Giuliani told CNN on Tuesday morning. “I think Donald Trump has selected somebody who knows the world and can advise him on the world.”

Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani arrives at Trump Tower, November 17, 2016 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)
Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani arrives at Trump Tower, November 17, 2016 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP)

As an oil executive, Tillerson has argued against sanctions that the US and European allies imposed on Russia after it annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

The sanctions are aimed against key sectors of the Russian economy, including financial services, energy, mining and defense, but also individuals in Putin’s inner circle. Experts say that if they remain in the long term, the sanctions could affect Exxon’s joint venture with Russia’s state oil company.

A native of Wichita Falls, Texas, 64-year-old Tillerson is a career Exxon employee, having joined the company after graduating from the University of Texas in 1975 with an engineering degree. Groomed for an executive position, he spent years in the rough-and-tumble world of oil production, working in Exxon’s central US, Yemen and Russian operations.

By the 1990s, Tillerson was overseeing many of Exxon’s foreign operations. He played a key role in Exxon’s involvement in the huge Sakhalin oil and natural gas project on Russia’s eastern coast. That was a warm-up for a $3.2 billion deal in which Exxon and Russian state-controlled Rosneft announced they would work together to explore for oil in Russia’s Arctic region.

In 2011, Tillerson flew to the Russian resort town of Sochi to meet Putin for the announcement. As news photographers recorded the scene, the men shook hands and smiled broadly at each other.

“This project promises to be highly interesting and ambitious,” Putin said at the time.

Success in Russia required aligning the company’s interests with those of the Russian government, mettle, and good relations with Putin. Exxon steadily expanded its Russian business while its rivals faced expropriation and regulatory obstacles. In 2013, Putin awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, an honor given to foreigners who improve relations with Russia.

“My relationship with Vladimir Putin, which dates back almost 15 years now, I’ve known him since 1999 and have a very close relationship with him,” Tillerson said in a speech a few years ago.

Like other oil companies, Exxon has had to develop its own diplomacy and foreign relations, so many skills Tillerson honed at Exxon could help in his new role, said Antoine Halff, head of the global oil markets program at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

Exxon also has operations in Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, and many other countries, from the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of Australia. Africa and Asia were its leading sources of oil production in 2015.

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