Rex & The Russian Swamp
Amid controversy over the extent of Kremlin penetration into the American electoral system (detailed last week in Investigative Bulletin), Donald Trump has doubled down on the Russian connection with his nomination of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to become the next secretary of state.
Mr. Trump has been signaling a new Russia tilt for months and Mr. Tillerson seems an excellent candidate to carry it out. Whether this is sound policy or sheer folly remains to be seen, but from an anti-corruption perspective—taking Mr. Trump at his pledge to “drain the swamp”—the Tillerson nomination is strange indeed.
Mr. Tillerson is up to his eyeballs in Russian oil deals with Vladimir Putin, whose kleptocratic regime makes the Washington swamp look like the pool at Mar-a-Lago. Last week, U.S. intelligence leaked a new estimate of Mr. Putin’s personal wealth: $85 billion.
His Kremlin salary: $144,444.
You lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. Mr. Tillerson’s role in the Rosneft oil deal is a case in point. Rosneft is a Russian energy giant closely allied with Mr. Putin. Mr. Tillerson negotiated a deal with Rosneft giving ExxonMobil access to vast Russian oil reserves in the Arctic and Black Sea. ExxonMobil pledged millions to provide the technology and expertise for exploration and drilling. In return, it received a one-third stake in the venture. Successful exploitation of the oil fields could bring more than $100 billion into ExxonMobil coffers.
Rosneft was formerly known as the Yukos Oil Company, Russia’s largest energy enterprise. In 2003, Mr. Putin decided he wanted it.
Yukos’s founder, the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was becoming a threat to Mr. Putin. He jailed Mr. Khodorkovsky on bogus fraud charges, seized Yukos assets and bankrupted the company. Mr. Khodorkovsky served ten years behind bars. Other Yukos officials were jailed or fled the country. American and Russian investors were robbed. The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague awarded investors $50 billion in damages, but the decision was later overturned.
Some might say Mr. Khodorkovsky got off easy. Here’s a list of Putin critics who ended up dead.
Yukos was raped and pillaged and its assets were transferred to Rosneft. Control of the company was given to a key Putin lieutenant, Igor Sechin. Like Mr. Putin, Mr. Sechin is a former KGB agent. Mr. Sechin is a leading figure in the siloviki—literally, “strongmen”—faction of former law enforcement, military and intelligence figures around Mr. Putin.
In 2012, Mr. Tillerson struck his deal with Rosneft. “Today really is a historic day,” Mr. Tillerson said at the signing ceremony.
Former Yukos officials and shareholders felt differently. When the Mafia or a drug cartel washes its ill-gotten gains into a new, “clean” financial entity, that’s called money laundering. “Through today’s agreement with Exxon,” the Committee for Russian Economic Freedom declared, “Rosneft has finally managed to give an aura of legitimacy to the theft of assets stolen from Yukos.” The former CFO of Yukos wrote in the Moscow Times that “Exxon is investing with a company whose largest assets were stolen from Yukos shareholders by the Russian government.”
Mr. Tillerson has a long history with Mr. Sechin. In 1998, Mr. Tillerson ran ExxonMobil’s oil and gas enterprise on Sakahalin Island, off the coast of Siberia. Mr. Sechin took over the Russian side of the project in 2004. Mr. Tillerson’s ExxonMobil predecessor as CEO tried to buy into Yukos but was driven off by the jailing of Mr. Khodorkovsky.
Mr. Tillerson persisted. The Rosneft deal giving ExxonMobil access to Arctic and Black Sea oil fields elevated the relationship between Mr. Tillerson and the Kremlin leadership. Mr. Tillerson calls Mr. Sechin a “friend.” Mr. Sechin says he wants to come to the United States to ride motorcycle with Mr. Tillerson. In 2013, Mr. Putin awarded Mr. Tillerson the Russian Order of Friendship for his “big contribution to developing cooperation in the energy sector.”
The bromance hit a rough patch in 2014 when the U.S. government sanctioned Russian officials and entities—including Mr. Sechin and Rosneft—for annexing Crimea and sending forces into Ukraine. The Rosneft deal was put on hold. Losses to ExxonMobil are estimated at more than $1 billion. In 2015, Mr. Tillerson declared at a conference, “We’ll await a time in which the sanctions environment changes or the sanctions requirements change.”
He may not have to wait much longer.
Investigative Bulletin is on vacation for the holidays. See you next year!
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: [email protected]
Investigative Bulletin published weekly by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: [email protected].