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What is the Russian Order of Friendship, and why does Rex Tillerson have one?

President Vladimir Putin, center, and ExxonMobil head Rex Tillerson shake hands at a signing ceremony of an agreement with the state-controlled Russian oil company Rosneft at the Black Sea port of Tuapse, southern Russia, in June 2012. At left is Rosneft chief executive Igor Sechin. (RIA-Novosti/AP)

MOSCOW — You don't have to be a close friend of President Vladimir Putin to be awarded Russia's Order of Friendship, much less the globe-trotting head of one of the world's most powerful corporations.

You can be a basketball coach who couldn't cut it in Cleveland. Or a museum director in Minnesota who's just happy to know that Putin isn't angry at him for holding on to a large collection of Russian paintings.

So although there may be plenty of valid concerns about the Russian entanglements of Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil, who has been tapped by President-elect Donald Trump to be the next secretary of state, his 2013 Order of Friendship award, based on its own merits, isn't necessarily one of them.

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Tillerson won the award after signing deals with the state-owned Russian oil company Rosneft, whose chief, Igor Sechin, is seen as Putin's loyal lieutenant. The partnership had begun a drilling program in the Arctic’s Kara Sea, where Exxon made a find, and had agreed to explore shale oil areas of West Siberia and the deep waters of the Black Sea. But then U.S. sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea kicked in, and the partnership was put on hold.

ExxonMobil spent $650 million to drill an exploratory well in the Kara Sea and had gotten just a measly sample of oil, said Mikhail Krutikhin, co-owner of RusEnergy, an independent oil and gas consultancy. (The head of the Italian oil major Eni also won a 2013 Order of Friendship.)

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Note to Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, the Republican from South Carolina, who called Putin's honoring of Tillerson “unnerving.” The Wichita Falls native isn't even the first “Texan who conquered Russia” to earn one.

That would be the late pianist Van Cliburn, to whom Putin awarded an Order of Friendship in 2004, for, among other things, his 1958 first-place showing in the Tchaikovsky International Competition. The people most unnerved by that were the organizers of the event, who never dreamed that a 23-year-old raised in Kilgore, Tex., could swoop into Moscow and walk away with the prize in an event that was supposed to showcase Soviet piano mastery.

Since it was established in 1994 by Russia's president at the time, Boris Yeltsin, the order has gone out to a number of less-prominent Americans, historians and business figures, as well as one arguably unsuccessful National Basketball Association coach.

David Blatt was fired midway through his second season in January, even though his Cleveland Cavaliers were in first place and would eventually go on to win the NBA title. What wasn't good enough for Cleveland was perfectly fine for the Kremlin. Blatt was awarded an Order of Friendship in 2014 for his successes as the head coach of the Russian national team between 2006 and 2012, which included a gold medal in the 2007 European Championship and Olympic bronze in 2012.

Not only do you not have to be a friend of Putin to get the award, you can also be someone worried about getting on the Kremlin leader's bad side.

In 2006, Raymond E. Johnson, founder of the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis, was awarded an Order of Friendship in recognition of 20 years of efforts to enhance cultural understanding between Russia and the United States.

Johnson and his wife, Susan, according to the museum's website, “have acquired what is believed to be the largest privately owned collection of Russian Realist paintings outside the borders of the former Soviet Union.”

In a 2012 interview, Johnson recalled that his Order of Friendship brought relief that Russia didn't consider him an enemy.

“What this meant to me was that they were proud of what we were doing and not angry about our having a large part of their art history,” he said.

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