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Tillerson says sanctions could be a 'powerful tool' against Russia

 (Steve Helber / Associated Press)
(Steve Helber / Associated Press)

Senators grilled Rex Tillerson on the use of sanctions as a tool to punish misbehaving countries after Donald Trump's pick for secretary of State said sanctions hurt U.S. business.

“In protecting American interests sanctions are a powerful tool," Tillerson said. "Let’s design them well, target them well, enforce them fully.”

He said he believed Trump agreed with him on this matter.

Tillerson hedged on whether he supported imposing sanctions on Russian or others who are found to engage in cyberattacks on the United States. He said the president should have flexibility in deciding whether to impose sanctions.

The confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee repeatedly returned to Tillerson's ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin in his previous career as chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, which has numerous investments in Russia.

Asked if Putin was a war criminal, Tillerson said he “would not use that term.”

Tillerson acknowledged that a resurgent Russia was cause for alarm. But he blamed a lack of U.S. leadership that “left the door open” and suggested the two countries could work together in several fields.

To achieve global stability, Tillerson said, “American leadership must not only be restored but reasserted.”

He said the Obama administration had abandoned some parts of the world and had failed others.

“We must continue to display a commitment to personal freedom and human dignity,” he said. “If we do not lead, we risk plunging the world deeper into despair and danger. … We have stumbled.”

In a testy exchange, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) cited atrocities in the Syrian city of Aleppo that he said were committed by Russian-backed Syrian government forces.

“Those are very, very serious charges to make and I would want to have more information,” Tillerson said.

Rubio seemed irked at the response, saying he found it “disturbing.”

Tillerson also said he did not have sufficient information to condemn Putin for allegedly murdering dissidents in Russia.

"None of this is classified," Rubio said. "These people are dead."

Tillerson said he agreed with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who said Putin’s Russia has failed miserably in permitting democracy, political dissent and free speech, and that sanctions might be the proper response for Moscow’s abuses.

Tillerson said Russia had no legitimate claim on Ukraine, differing somewhat with Trump who at one point said he believed many Ukrainians wanted to be Russian, a tacit acceptance of Moscow's seizure of Crimea in 2014.

“The taking of Crimea caught a lot of people by surprise,” Tillerson said.

“The absence of a firm, forceful response to the taking of Crimea” was interpreted by Putin as permission to get more aggressive elsewhere in the world. “What Russian leadership would have understood was a more forceful response.”

Departing from Trump, he said he would have provided Ukraine with defensive weapons and make a show of U.S. and NATO border surveillance and intelligence-sharing.

Trump's aides had cut language about arming Ukraine out of the GOP platform at the Republican National Convention last summer.

“Our actions and inactions have … created a void,” Tillerson said. “Those who are not our friends must be held accountable.”

He cited radical Islam and the need to defeat Islamic State as “our foremost priority,” and said that Iran must be punished if it violates terms of the accord it reached with six other nations, including the U.S., that blocks its ability to develop nuclear weapons.

Tillerson said China's “illegal” building of military outposts on manmade islands in the South China Sea had to be tackled, but that Washington must see the value of working with China.

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