Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, declared Wednesday that Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 was illegal but criticized the Obama administration’s response.
The former ExxonMobil chairman and CEO, speaking during his confirmation hearing before members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Russia’s actions were “a taking of territory that was not theirs.”
Tillerson also said that the incursion, which he called a surprise, should have prompted “a powerful response that indicated that yes, you took the Crimea, but this stops right here.” Tillerson said that the United States should have responded differently to Russia’s actions, adding that he would have aided Ukraine more swiftly with intelligence and defensive weaponry.
Tillerson was questioned early in his confirmation hearing on several issues connected to Russia, where he had several business dealings and received Russia’s Order of Friendship decoration from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida questioned Tillerson harshly about reports that Russia had meddled in the 2016 election, to which Tillerson acknowledged that it was a “fair assumption” that Putin would have had knowledge of a cyberattack.
Rubio also pressed Tillerson on Russia’s role in Aleppo, Syria, asking “Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?”
“I would not use that term,” Tillerson responded.
Tillerson also refused to commit to upholding current sanctions against Russia during Rubio’s questioning, saying he was “not willing to make conclusions based only on what is publicly available.”
In response to a follow up question from Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Tillerson said sanctions “by their design are going to harm American business.”
Tillerson also said he had “not had the opportunity to discuss” Russian sanctions with the president-elect.