Asked directly, Trump’s Sec. of State nominee refuses to call Putin a war criminal

“Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?”

Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) may be from the same party as the new administration, but that didn’t stop him from directing a serious line of questioning at President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State.

“Let me ask you,” Rubio said during the confirmation hearing for former Exxon CEO, Rex Tillerson, citing Russia’s actions in Syria and Chechnya. “Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?”

“I would not use that term,” Tillerson said.

Rubio was clearly displeased with Tillerson’s answer and began to describe documented terms of Russian crimes in Syria and Chechnya.

Let me describe the situation in Aleppo. [Putin] has directed his military to conduct a devastating campaign. He’s targeted schools, markets — not just assisted the Syrians in doing it — his military targeted schools, markets, other civilian infrastructure resulting in the deaths of thousands of civilians. This is not the first time Mr. Putin was involved in campaigns of this kind. Back when he was just appointed prime minister before he was elected… there was a series of bombings and they blamed it on the Chechans…Mr. Putin ordered the air force to bomb their capital with scud missiles to hit hospitals, the main market…137 people died instantly…He used battlefield weapons against civilians…an estimated 300,000 civilians were killed and the city was destroyed.

There was a credible body of reporting, open source and other, that all the bombings were part of a black flag operation on the part of the FSB [Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation] and if you want to know the motivation, here it is. Putin’s approval ratings before the attacks were 31 percent. By mid August of that year it was 78 percent in just three months. Based on this information and what’s publicly in the record about what happened in Aleppo and the Russian military, you are not prepared to say Vladimir Putin and his military violated the rules of war and conducted war crimes in Aleppo?

And despite the clear picture, Tillerson’s response was still ambiguous.

“Those are very serious charges to make,” Tillerson said. “I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion.”

In Syria, the Russian air force has targeted hospitals as a strategy of war, resulting in the death of thousands of civilians. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called for Russia to be investigated for war crimes last October.

Tillerson’s failure to condemn Putin’s directives in the Middle Eastern nation clearly wasn’t acceptable to Rubio.

“There is so much information about what happened in Aleppo,” Rubio said. “It should not be hard to say that Vladimir Putin’s military conducted war crimes in Aleppo. Because it is never acceptable, you would agree, for a military to specifically target civilians which happened there through the Russian military and, you know, I find it discouraging, your inability to cite that which I think is globally accepted.”

Rubio then shifted to another issue that appeared to be contentious for Tillerson — Putin’s targeting of political opposition and critical media.

Rubio asked: “Mr. Tillerson, do you believe that Vladimir Putin and his cronies are responsible for ordering the murder of countless dissidents, journalists and political opponents?”

“I don’t have sufficient information to make that claim,” Tillerson responded.

Shortly after Rubio, Sen. Menendez (D-NJ) again pressed Tillerson on whether the Russian government is guilty of war crimes due to its invasion and annexation of Crimea and its military involvement in Syria. Tillerson refused to answer.

Here’s the full exchange:

Menendez: Do you believe that the international order includes respecting the territorial integrity of sovereign countries in the viability of their borders?

Tillerson: Yes, sir.

Menendez: Did Russia violate this order when it forcefully annexed Crimea and invade Ukraine.

Tillerson: Yes.

Menendez: Did Russia’s continuing occupation of foreign countries violate international laws and norms?

Tillerson: I’m not sure which specific countries you are referring to.

Menendez: The annexation of Crimea.

Tillerson: Yes, sir.

Menendez: Eastern Ukraine, Georgia, just to mention a few?

Tillerson: Yes, sir.

Menendez: Does Russia and Syria’s targeted campaign on Aleppo violate the international order?

Tillerson: Yes. That’s not acceptable behavior.

Menendez: Do you believe the actions constitute war crimes?

Tillerson: Again, senator, I don’t have sufficient information to make that type of a serious conclusion. Coming to that conclusion is going to require me to have additional specific facts.

A recent report by U.S. intelligence agencies claiming Russia interfered with the recent presidential election in favor of Donald Trump has placed Russia in the spotlight. But Tillerson’s appointment was expected to come under additional heat due to his personal relationship with Putin, who awarded him the Russian Order of Friendship in 2013.

In fact, Tillerson’s relationship to Russia has drawn questions from many Republicans weary of Russia’s influence in the world.

“I don’t know what Mr. Tillerson’s relationship with Vladimir Putin was, but I’ll tell you it is a matter of concern to me,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told Fox News last month.

Tillerson’s response to Rubio and Menendez is unlikely to have ebbed those concerns.