Has Tillerson shown his cards? Exxon Mobil moves to dismantle Russian sanctions (revised April 21, 2017)

Revised April 21, 2017

Two of the things Rex Tillerson said in his Senate confirmation hearings appear to have been either extremely misleading or simply untrue.

The first was his assertion that he had not discussed Russia with Trump during the selection process leading to his nomination.  This statement more than strains credulity, since one of the reasons he was picked was reportedly his longstanding relationship with Vladimir Putin.

The second was his statement that he had not lobbied against the Russian sanctions imposed in reponse to Russia’s invasion of the Crimea and the eastern Ukraine in 2014. The National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce placed full-page ads in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and other papers strenously arguing against the imposition of sanctions. Exxon Mobil was involved.

See “American big business votes for appeasement with Russia; Interview with Prime Minister Taavi Roivas of Estonia,” The Trenchant Observer, June 25, 2014.

Now, less than two weeks after returning from lengthy conversations with Putin and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, there is renewed interest on the part of Exxon Mobil in its application for an “exception” to the Russian sanctions.


Jay Solomon and Bradley Olson, “Exxon Seeks U.S. Waiver to Resume Russia Oil Venture; Exxon Mobil applied to Treasury for exemption to resume venture with Rosneft forged in 2012 by Rex Tillerson,” Wall Street Journal, April 19, 2017 (updated 3:53 p.m. ET).

Clifford Kraus, “Exxon Mobil Seeks U.S. Sanctions Waiver for Oil Project in Russia,” New York Times, April 19, 2017.

Let there be no doubt. Such an exception, if granted, would quickly lead to the collapse of Russian sanctions imposed not only by the U.S. but also by the EU. Which of the 28 members of the EU would not have its own “special case” meriting an exemption from the sanctions?

Now it may be that Exxon Mobil’s renewed push for an exception is just a feint, aimed at measuring the real level of resistance in the Trump administration to the lifting of the sanctions. Whether in earnest or a feint, the move provides a stark illustration of how Exxon Mobil’s foreign policy objectives differ from those of the U.S.

Exxon Mobil stands to lose significant business opportunities in Russia. The U.S. and the West stand to lose the integrity of the United Nations Charter and Article 2(4) which prohibits the threat or use of force across international frontiers.

Russia’s violations of this prohibition, by invading the Crimea and the eastern Ukraine, is why the sanctions were put in place. To weaken or lift the sanctions while Russia occupies these Ukrainian territories with troops would directly undermine the political, military and security order established in the U.N. Charter in 1945.

Would Exxon Mobil make such a move, continuing its push for approval of its application for an exception with the Trump administration, without some sense of how receptive Tillerson might be, and maybe even some sense of the extent to which Exxon Mobil’s oil exploration agreements were discussed in Tillerson’s meetings with the Russians in Moscow?

Tillerson has recused himself from playing any formal role in the State Department’s decisions regarding Exxon Mobil’s request for an excption to the sanctions. That does not prevent him from giving a wink and a nod to his old friends and colleagues at Exxon Mobil.

The Senate should call Tillerson to testify about what he discussed with Putin and Lavrov, and whether the topics included oil and gas exploration in Russia by Exxon-Mobil and others, or an “exception” to the sanctions.

As a reader has pointed out in a Tweet, we should not rush to judgment about Tillerson.

Nor should we make excuses for him, or judge him by a more lenient standard just bcause Trump is an ignorant and reckless boss.

We have a right to know Tillerson’s thinking about sanctions.

We have a right to know why he has not filled the top positions in the State Department, seven weeks after he was confirmed by the Senate.

Tillerson, like Trump, needs to be held accountable for his actions.

To date, by his inaction he has crippled the diplomacy of the State Department and the United States. We don’t know why he hasn’t filled these positions, or his sense of urgency and his timetable for doing so in the future.

To date, we don’t know what was said in his talks with Putin and Lavrov in Moscow.

We need to know.

The Trenchant Observer

NOTE: We will take a closer look at the question of how Tillerson should be judged in a future article.

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.