Vladimir Putin has few enemies as fierce and outspoken as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil tycoon whom Putin jailed for 10 years, and who is now leading an international opposition movement in exile. But in an interview with CNN, Khodorkovsky could not join the outrage against Donald Trump’s choice for Secretary of State, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, for his ties to Putin and Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin:
CNN: You had some personal meetings with Rex Tillerson, the nominee for the Secretary of State, when you were head of Yukos and he was working at Exxon. How do you characterise him as a man from those meetings?
Mikhail Khodorkovsky: “Mr Tillerson made the impression of a very strong manager. I doubt that any other person would’ve been able to get to that position in such a company like Exxon Mobil. I think that it won’t be a problem for him to build up or bring efficiency to the huge organisation that the American State Department is. This is a usual job for him. Another issue is, of course, harder. […]
“Undoubtedly he has a relationship with, and very acute understanding of Putin’s closest circle. I mean Mr Sechin, because he’s worked with him for a long time.”
CNN: That’s not a problem, his close relationship to one of the most powerful men in the Kremlin, Igor Sechin?
“I’d say I don’t know for whom this is a problem. The fact that he knows them too well could be a problem for America [and] it could be a problem for Sechin and Putin. And the issue here depends on values. If Mr Tillerson in his new job will hold up the beacon light of values, in that case I think that Mr Sechin, whom he knows well, wouldn’t have it easy. Because Mr Sechin’s values are not just different, they are hostile towards the common values in America. I don’t think that Mr Tillerson’s values are different. The question is whether he would be able to move away from a deal-based approach and move towards a values-based approach, because if not, Putin has a full house of cards for a deal-based approach.
Khodorkovsky’s thoughtful approach to Trump’s appointment should be a corrective to those indulging in knee-jerk hysteria about Tillerson’s work in Russia. As we argued last week, Tillerson should be assessed on the basis of his own experience and competence, and Khodorkovsky gives no new reason to doubt him on either count. Khodorkovksy does raise several legitimate questions about Tillerson: whether he will pursue a “values-based” foreign policy, for example, and how he will translate his past business experience into the less transactional world of international politics. The nation would be well served if his confirmation hearings focused on such substantive matters rather than irresponsible charges that Tillerson is a Kremlin stooge.
Khodorkovsky’s comments on Tillerson echo themes sounded in his recent interview with The American Interest, where he speculated about how a businessman like Trump might deal with Putin:
Coming from a business background, I have a strong faith in people who managed to become leaders in business. At the end of the day, Donald Trump has a pretty long record of both successes and failures while being a top figure in business. This experience proves that he is inherently a leader. Of course, I don’t know if he will be able to leverage this skill in politics; business and politics are different things, after all. But I have no doubt that he has his own views, and that he will try to advance his views, for better or for worse for America. I’m sure he will try to be a leader, not merely a mirror that reflects public opinion. That is a trick that I think he only used during the campaign. We will soon see a new Trump—a better or a worse one, I don’t know. But definitely a new one.
Read our full interview with Khodorkovsky here.