It’s no wonder President Donald Trump no longer needs Rex Tillerson. In little more than a year as secretary of state, Tillerson proved incapable of the dealmaking magic his boss sought at the beginning of his administration. Nowhere was the shortcoming more pronounced than on Russia.
As chief executive of Exxon Mobil, Tillerson went boldly where the U.S. government didn’t really want him to go. Contrary to U.S. policy goals and State Department guidance, he did business with the government of Iraqi Kurdistan in 2011. In April 2012, Exxon Mobil and the Russian state-owned oil champion, Rosneft, unveiled a $500 billion Arctic exploration partnership. It was this deal that earned Tillerson the Russian Order of Friendship, which President Vladimir Putin personally pinned on his chest in 2013 (that was before Russia grabbed Crimea but after the U.S.-Russian relationship went cold). Later, the U.S. Treasury Department would accuse Tillerson’s management team at Exxon of violating sanctions as it tried to hold on to the partnership after the Crimea annexation.
Trump’s election campaign had been all about the upsides of running a sluggish government like an agile business. Getting along with Putin was one of his stated goals. Tillerson, who had had deep doubts about Russia’s business climate, made his huge deal with Rosneft by going directly to Putin and building a relationship. His appointment looked logical, inasmuch as anything Trump did followed any kind of logic.
But starting from his confirmation hearing, Tillerson showed that his opening bid in any negotiations would be far less accommodating toward the Kremlin than it was at Exxon Mobil. He was ready to talk to the Kremlin as part of his new job, but by no means as an award-winning friend.
“Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests,” Tillerson told senators. “We need an open and frank dialogue with Russia regarding its ambitions, so that we know how to chart our own course.”
There was little for Putin to like about Tillerson’s clear condemnation of the Crimea grab and Russia’s support of Syrian President Bashar Assad. And it wasn’t just a starting position in a negotiation. These two subjects — Ukraine and Syria — have dominated Tillerson’s rhetoric on Russia during his tenure as secretary of state. Last December, he said there would be no improvement in U.S.-Russia relations until Ukraine crisis was resolved, ignoring the Kremlin’s repeated desire to do so as part of a deal with the U.S. And in January, he blamed Russia for chemical attacks in Syria — an impossible starting position for any discussion with the Kremlin.
In other words, Tillerson knew how to negotiate with Putin and his inner circle, but chose not to demonstrate that skill as secretary of state. He must have made up his mind early on that he wouldn’t be smeared along with Trump by the unfolding Russia scandal.
That’s not how Tillerson sees it. In his telling, the Trump administration tried to talk things through with Russia, but, “quite frankly, after a year, we didn’t get very far.” There are no public traces of these attempts, though. Tillerson’s tone when he spoke about Russia as secretary of state has always been stringently, unflinchingly confrontational.
In the latest Russia-related scandal, the attempted poisoning of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in the U.K., Tillerson hastened to put the blame on Russia, echoing and even somewhat amplifying the assessment of U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May. Trump, for his part, only professed willingness to accept the U.K.’s conclusions in the case. “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be,” he said.
Former and current career diplomats have painted Tillerson’s corporate-style reorganization of the State Department as an act of dismantlement. But they can hardly accuse him of not adopting thoroughly mainstream foreign-policy positions. On Russia, there has been more than full continuity with the time John Kerry was secretary of state. At least Kerry had tried to make situational deals with the Kremlin, sometimes angering more hawkish officials in the Obama administration.
Trump had wanted a negotiator at State; he got a Distinguished Eagle Scout.
It’s not that Tillerson’s replacement, Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo, will be any softer on Russia. He has been as consistently hawkish as Tillerson. But, after more than a year of Tillerson’s stubborn performance, perhaps Trump has given up on the power of deals to remake U.S. foreign policy in his image. His uncompromising game of chicken with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un may just lead to a historic summit. It remains to be seen whether a similar escalation yields better results with Putin.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.