Kremlin Calls Tillerson, Trump's Likely Pick for Secretary of State, 'Highly Professional'

Confirming friendship, Moscow says the Exxon executive has been received by Putin several times.

A file photo of Exxon Mobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson addressing the World Gas Conference in Paris, June 2, 2015.
ERIC PIERMONT/AFP

Rex Tillerson, the Exxon Mobil chief executive who is front-runner to be President-elect Donald Trump's pick for Secretary of State, is highly professional and is known personally to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a Kremlin spokesman said on Monday. 

"As part of his duties as head of one of the biggest oil companies, he had contacts with our representatives," the spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on a conference call with reporters. "The president received him several times."

Tillerson has stated publicly that he has known Russian leader Vladimir Putin for 17 years and “I have a very close relationship with him.”

Speaking earlier this year at a lecture series organized by the University of Texas, Tillerson said that he doesn’t agree with everything Putin does, but he doesn’t agree with what many foreign leaders do “and he understands that I am a businessman.” He added that in his contacts with Putin and other foreign leaders, he makes clear that he is bound by U.S. laws pertaining to that country “but I am not the U.S. government and I am not here to defend it.” 

A native of Wichita Falls, Texas, Tillerson came to Exxon Mobile Corp. as a production engineer straight out of the University of Texas at Austin in 1975 and never left. Groomed for an executive position, Tillerson came up in the rough-and-tumble world of oil production, holding posts in the company's central United States, Yemen and Russian operations.

His nomination as the country's top diplomat is the nascent Trump administration's most concrete outreach yet to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Success in Russia required aligning the company's interests with those of the Russian government, mettle and good relations with Putin. Exxon steadily expanded its Russian business even as its rivals faced expropriation and regulatory obstacles, and in 2013 Putin bestowed the Order of Friendship on Tillerson.

While Tillerson advocates for a hands-off approach to markets, he's backed continued American engagement in the Middle East. After the Iraq war, Exxon agreed to develop a large project in still-unstable southern Iraq at terms that less favorable to Exxon than most deals. In 2011, Tillerson announced an expansive relationship with Russia's Rosneft that will spend years and billions of dollars developing technology to explore and produce oil and gas in icy waters in the Russian Arctic.