Russian Officials and Analysts Think Tillerson as Secretary of State Could End Sanctions

Oil executive with deep business experience in Russia opposed sanctions.

While Russian officials have been more measured in their praise, many foreign policy analysts in the country, including those close to the Kremlin, have responded to the Tillerson pick as a sign that Trump is planning a major reset of Russian-U.S. relations, which have fallen to post–Cold War lows.

"Russian representatives and not only the president have very good working relations with this person," Yuri Ushakov, a Kremlin aide told Interfax. "He is a solid and very professional person."

Tillerson may soon be in a position to help lift economic sanctions on Russia, potentially earning his former company billions of dollars.

In 2011 he signed a strategic partnership deal with Russia's oil giant, Rosneft, then owned 75 percent by the government and headed by Putin's close ally and former KGB colleague Igor Sechin. Like his company, Sechin is currently under sanctions. Putin has suggested the investment in those projects could one day reach a massive $500 billion. Another project allows ExxonMobil to work on massive Arctic reserves with 750 million barrels of oil.

But in 2014, Barack Obama's administration imposed sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, targeting Putin's inner circle and the country's banking and energy sectors. The sanctions meant some of ExxonMobil's highest-value projects were frozen.

Ending those sanctions now seems a distinct possibility. As head of ExxonMobil, Tillerson publicly opposed them, saying the company considered them ineffective and unnecessarily damaging to its business.

"We'll await a time in which the sanctions environment changes or the sanctions requirements change," he told an oil conference in Houston in 2015. Trump has said that the sanctions are "something we'll be looking at."

The Kremlin, which has been maneuvering heavily to have the sanctions lifted, has played down its excitement over Tillerson's selection. Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia did not "cherish any dreams" that it would transform relations.

But the possibility that Tillerson could be involved in lifting the sanctions and unlocking huge gains for ExxonMobil has raised questions about a possible conflict of interest. Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia under Obama, wrote on Twitter:

Tillerson, who has worked at ExxonMobil and its earlier incarnations for over 40 years, earlier this year reportedly owned $218 million in company stock and had a roughly $70 million pension plan. He was due to retire next year, according to The New York Times.

Trump has praised Tillerson's dealmaking in Russia. In an interview with Fox News on Sunday, Trump said, "To me, a great advantage is he knows many of the players and he knows them well."

"He does massive deals in Russia," Trump added. "He does massive deals, not for himself, for the company."

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