Although Vladimir Putin has no shortage of energy executives on his payroll, the Russian President likes to negotiate oil and gas deals personally. He seems to get a kick out of it. He has been known to discuss the minutiae of drilling rigs and pipeline routes with foreign delegates until their eyes glaze over. Call it a hobby, or an obsession. But it was this keen interest in energy politics that brought Putin into contact with Rex Tillerson, the American oil executive who, as of Tuesday, is in line to become the next U.S. Secretary of State.
For Putin, the news of the latest nomination to the Cabinet of President-elect Donald Trump could hardly have been more perfect if the Kremlin itself had scripted it. Tillerson, who has served as chief executive of ExxonMobil since 2006, has been a friend to Russia even during the lowest points in its relations with the West. He has called for the U.S. to lift the sanctions imposed on Moscow in 2014 for its military assault against Ukraine. And his name is the one that officials in Moscow have tended to mention as a sign of hope that “pragmatic” relations with the U.S. would one day return.
But what makes Tillerson especially attractive to Putin is not just his pragmatism or his support for the lifting of sanctions. Nor is it his close relationship with some of Putin’s top lieutenants in the energy industry. It is rather Tillerson’s reputation as an unsentimental dealmaker — which also happens to be the quality that endeared him to Trump. “Rex Tillerson’s career is the embodiment of the American dream,” Trump said in a statement on Tuesday, a dream he achieved at the world’s largest energy company through “hard work, dedication and smart dealmaking.”
One of the most impressive deals of Tillerson’s career was a 2011 agreement to drill for oil in the Arctic along with Rosneft, Russia’s state-run energy conglomerate. Though Tillerson’s formal partner in those talks was Igor Sechin, the Rosneft chief executive, Putin personally oversaw the negotiations, which were finalized at his residence in Sochi that summer. In exchange for Arctic drilling rights, Tillerson gave Russia unprecedented access to oil fields in his home state of Texas and in the Gulf of Mexico, allowing Putin to feel like an equal and long-term partner, rather than another one of the world’s many oil-rich autocrats who sells chunks of his country to global corporations. Two years later, Putin rewarded Tillerson with the Order of Friendship, one of the highest civilian honors that Russia can grant a foreigner.