A new US policy on Russia needs Exxon CEO's skills

Mr Donald Trump's choice of ExxonMobil chief executive officer Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state is proof that his administration will take a new approach to US policy towards Russia, as he hinted during the presidential campaign.

The dismay about that shift in the expert and intelligence community may be a good sign: The same experts and spies have led the Obama administration into a series of missteps that have embarrassed the United States and helped advance President Vladimir Putin's agenda.

Mr Tillerson is an old Russia hand but not in the sense the US foreign policy community would attach to that phrase. Although the Texan doesn't hold a degree in Russian studies or even speak the language, his stint at the Russian division of ExxonMobil helped propel him to the company's top management. He is behind the revival of the Sakhalin project, started in the mid-1990s as a production-sharing agreement, though it was stalled when the Russian government expressed doubts about the format. He is also behind the more recent cooperation with Rosneft, the state-controlled oil company. These highlights of Mr Tillerson's career brought him into contact with Mr Putin's inner circle and the Russian President himself - he was awarded the Order of Friendship in 2013, when Mr Putin had few American friends.

Mr Tillerson is no fan of US sanctions against Russia because they have scuppered a major Exxon-Rosneft project in the Arctic. At the most recent St Petersburg Economic Forum, in June, Mr Tillerson was asked about the sanctions. "It's a question for the government - if there's any US government official who would like to respond," the oilman quipped, as the audience laughed. US government representatives weren't around, of course; since 2014, the State Department has frowned on the attendance of US executives at Mr Putin's favourite forum.

Now Mr Tillerson may well be destined for a government role himself, even as Mr Trump's team continues to fight off allegations from part of the US intelligence community that Russia intervened in the US presidential campaign to get the billionaire elected.

President Barack Obama has been listening to the intelligence community and to the traditional Russia experts for close to eight years - it hasn't got him very far. First there was the disastrous "reset" during his first term. Then there was the ineffective flailing following Mr Putin's aggression in Ukraine and the economic sanctions that failed to deter the aggression but allowed the Russian leader to build a domestic consensus against the West as the ultimate enemy. It should be impossible to ignore the US as a global superpower, but Mr Putin has largely managed that in recent years, doing as he pleased in Russia's immediate neighbourhood and in Syria, rearming, forming special relationships with some US allies, notably Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Mr Rex Tillerson is an old Russia hand but not in the sense the US foreign policy community would attach to that phrase. He is behind the revival of the Sakhalin project and the cooperation with Rosneft. His experience making situational deals with Russian President Vladimir Putin could help the US. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

The US expert community tried to formulate a values-based policy towards Russia, condemning Mr Putin as as dictator and attempting to isolate him, but that strategy has done little to advance US interests. Instead, Mr Putin's reaction to the treatment he saw as humiliating led to the expulsion from Russia of US organisations that aimed to promote civil society. In Syria, the Obama administration did its utmost to avoid a direct confrontation, letting Mr Putin bomb whomever he wanted. The US also refused to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine.

It has been a schizophrenic policy. It insisted on values Washington ignored in countries such as Saudi Arabia, and it ensured a hostile relationship. Mr Putin has openly mocked it, at least during Mr Obama's second term.

Mr Trump can hardly do worse if he completely discards the kind of advice Mr Obama has been getting on Russia and relies on a different kind of expertise - the kind Mr Tillerson has. The Exxon executive's awareness of how business is done in today's Russia is far superior to that of career diplomats, academics and even spies. He has navigated the Kremlin and gone to the top to make major deals in Russia's most important industry. His perspective is values-based, in a way: He's been trying to increase his company's shareholder value.

Making an alliance with Mr Putin in Syria would probably serve US interests. The Russian-Iranian alliance has done a lot to help President Bashar al-Assad's forces. Joint US-Russian operations would ensure a quicker end to the fighting and increase chances of an eventual post-war settlement - possibly a workable partition of Syria.

Impossible as it is from the values point of view to support Russia's depredations in Ukraine, the vocal but ineffectual US support of the current Ukrainian regime hasn't worked either. The corrupt Kiev government is another embarrassment to its backers, and if the military containment of Russia is a US goal, it should have done far more to arm and train Ukrainian troops and obtain Nato membership for the country.

It's important for Mr Trump's administration to formulate precisely what US interests are in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East. It will probably do so in an unsentimental way.

From a pragmatic point of view, a series of deals with Russia serves US interests better than the current toothless confrontation. The moral satisfaction of not encouraging a dictator may be important, but the Obama administration's policy ended up enabling Mr Putin's most reprehensible gambles. It consolidated Mr Putin's domestic support and proofed his regime against external shocks by letting him practise austerity in the face of Western hostility.

Much as I would like Russia to join the ranks of Western democracies, and Mr Putin's regime to fall, I believe the US has been unwillingly furthering the opposite agenda. It should stop doing so, accept Russia as a situational ally based on pragmatic economic and political considerations and work patiently with the Russian people, offering them education and travel opportunities, exposing them to Western culture and attitudes, bringing them into the world. Someday, years from now, there may be a critical mass of support for a more Western Russia that could be a reliable ally for the US. Until then, Mr Tillerson's experience making situational deals with Mr Putin could come in handy.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2016, with the headline 'A new US policy on Russia needs Exxon CEO's skills'. Print Edition | Subscribe