Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, adopted a tough new line on Russia yesterday, calling it a "danger" to the United States and saying he would have recommended a muscular response to Moscow's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.
Both assertions appeared to contradict the views of the president-elect, who has repeatedly spoken of improving US-Russia ties.
Mr Tillerson, a friend of the Kremlin and foe of sanctions in his corporate life, said last week's intelligence report that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election was troubling and that it was a "fair assumption" Vladimir Putin would have personally ordered the intervention. He wouldn't call Mr Putin a "war criminal" for Russian actions in Syria, but said he'd consider such a designation if he saw evidence.
Faced with pointed questions from Democratic and Republican senators about his ties with Russia and relationship with Mr Putin, who awarded him the Order of Friendship in 2014, Mr Tillerson sought to allay fears either he or Mr Trump would go easy on Moscow.
But in a surprising revelation, he conceded that he hadn't yet discussed details with Mr Trump about his ideas for a Russia policy.
"That was a taking of territory that was not theirs," he said on Russia's Crimea actions. He said he had been "caught by surprise" by the step, while criticising the Obama administration's response through sanctions on Russia, which ended up costing Exxon hundreds of millions of dollars.
Mr Tillerson said he would have responded to Russia's actions against Ukraine by urging Kiev to send all available military units to its Russian border. He would have recommended US and allied support to Ukraine, through defensive weapons and air surveillance, to send a message to Moscow.
"That is the type of response that Russia expects," he said in a response to questions from Senator Marco Rubio, who offered Mr Tillerson perhaps the toughest Republican questioning. "If Russia acts with force ... it requires a proportional show of force to indicate to Russia that there will be no more taking of territory," he said.
Economic sanctions, which Mr Tillerson had questioned as chief of Exxon, "are a powerful tool and an important tool in terms of deterring additional action," he said. However, they could also send a "weak" message unless carefully crafted and applied on an international basis.