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Opinion Tillerson to testify Russia must be held to account for its actions

Rex Tillerson. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

In his first public remarks as President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to be secretary of state, former ExxonMobile chief executive Rex Tillerson will say he believes Russia is “a danger” and that NATO allies are right to be alarmed by its aggression. But he makes no mention of Moscow’s interference in the U.S. election campaign or the future of U.S. sanctions.

“I come before you at a pivotal time in both the history of our nation and our world,” Tillerson will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday morning in an opening statement that lays out a realist and tough view of foreign affairs. “Nearly everywhere we look, people and nations are deeply unsettled. Old ideas and international norms which were well-understood and governed behaviors in the past may no longer be effective in our time.” I obtained a copy of the statement.

Tillerson will talk about several challenges in his opening remarks: an economically powerful China that is expanding militarily, the spread of radical Islam, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Russian interference in Europe and beyond. His message on Russia will be much tougher than that of his new boss.

“While Russia seeks respect and relevance on the global stage, its recent activities have disregarded American interests,” he will testify. “Russia must know that we will be accountable to our commitments and those of our allies, and that Russia must be held to account for its actions.”

The United States should be clear-eyed about Russia and its various activities that are destabilizing countries in its near abroad and the Middle East, according to Tillerson.

“Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests. It has invaded Ukraine, including the taking of Crimea, and supported Syrian forces that brutally violate the laws of war,” his statement reads. “Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia.”

Tillerson blames the Obama administration primarily for the failure of the United States so far to confront Russian aggression. He will argue that where possible, the United States should explore cooperation with Russia, such as with the fight against terrorism. But where Russian actions are threatening to the U.S. or our allies, we should push back, he will testify.

“We did not recognize that Russia does not think like we do,” he will say. “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.”

Those comments could go a long way to allying senators’ concerns that Tillerson, who has a long business relationship with Russian leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, might be too eager to pursue closer ties with Moscow. His testimony also tracks what he has been telling senators in private meetings.

Senators are sure to press Tillerson about Russia’s cyberattack on the Democratic National Committee. A bipartisan group of 10 senators introduced new legislation Tuesday to increase sanctions on Russia in response to the meddling, and Tillerson will be asked if he supports such action. He may also face questions about a new report that the intelligence community presented Trump with a memo containing details about allegations that Russian operatives have compromising financial and personal information about the president-elect.

In his statement, Tillerson will also pledge that the Trump administration will get tough on Iranian violations of the nuclear deal and China’s reluctance to use its influence to stop North Korea’s nuclear program.

“We cannot continue to accept empty promises like the ones China has made to pressure North Korea to reform, only to shy away from enforcement,” he will say. “Looking the other way when trust is broken only encourages more bad behavior. And it must end.”

Tillerson won’t say how the Trump administration plans to pressure China, but transition sources tell me they are considering secondary sanctions on Chinese companies that aid the North Korean regime.

More broadly, Tillerson will call out China for several actions, including militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea, stealing intellectual property and cyber espionage. He will argue for a more confrontational approach.

“China has proven a willingness to act with abandon in pursuit of its own goals, which at times has put it in conflict with America’s interests,” he will say. “We have to deal with what we see, not with what we hope.”

Tillerson will also tell the senators he believes in human rights and that American values and interests are one in the same, although he will caution that human rights cannot be the sole consideration for national security decisions. Overall, he will promise to uphold American ideals but he will frame his world view in realist terms.

“I am an engineer by training. I seek to understand the facts, follow where they lead, and apply logic to our international affairs,” Tillerson will say. “We must see the world for what it is, have clear priorities, and understand that our power is considerable, but it is not infinite.”

Tillerson’s confirmation is likely, although most Democrats and some Republicans are withholding judgment until after his hearings are completed. On Capitol Hill, most lawmakers and staffers view Tillerson as a competent executive with good relationships abroad. But there are questions about how much say he will really have in crafting the Trump administration’s foreign policy.