WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, questioned Secretary of State Nominee Rex Tillerson on his views about restoring America’s role in the world, commitment to the NATO alliance, his plan to stand up for Ukraine against Russian aggression, and the threat of foreign propaganda and disinformation. 

Portman, who serves as co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, emphasized the need to hold Russia accountable for its illegal annexation of Crimea and its ongoing aggression in Ukraine. He also highlighted the importance of supporting Ukraine for American non-proliferation efforts, referencing the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, an international agreement in which the United States promised to protect Ukrainian sovereignty if it agreed to turn over its nuclear weapons, which at that time constituted the world’s 3rd largest arsenal.

In response to Portman’s questioning, Tillerson confirmed that the Article 5 NATO security guarantee is unconditional and is not dependent on size or geographical location of the county. Tillerson also committed to undertaking no broad resolution of the conflict of Ukraine without the consent of the Ukrainian people and to keeping current sanctions on Russia in place.

Tillerson indicated his support for providing defensive lethal assistance to Ukraine. Portman also questioned Tillerson on his view of Russia’s extensive disinformation and propaganda campaigns being waged against the United States and our allies, which his recently signed-into-law Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act is designed to combat.

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Senator Portman: “Mr. Tillerson, … I appreciate your willingness to step forward and serve your country, and I know it is not without some sacrifice. But also incredible opportunity. We talked a little in my office and I appreciate your meeting with me about restoring America’s role in the world. And just listening today to your testimony back and forth, I think there is a consensus building in this country that we do need to do some things immediately to put America back in a position of being trusted and respected by our allies and our adversaries. I like to look at it more, that we’re not looking to be the world’s policeman, but to put it in Texas terms, more like the sheriff, who gets the posse together. And at the eastern border of Ukraine and in Crimea, that would be NATO. And although Ukraine isn’t a member, that region relies on it, and those countries need leadership. And with regard to Syria, I think it’s the Kurds, it is the Sunni countries in the neighborhood, and so it’s the posse. And in the South China Sea, China has been increasingly aggressive, I think it’s the Pacific Rim countries who are very nervous, but they’re looking for leadership and that security umbrella we provided since World War II has kept the peace. I hope that’s consistent with what you have told me in private and what you’re saying here publicly today.I think there is an opportunity as well as a sacrifice related to your service.

“As we talked about in our meeting, a number of my constituents in my home state of Ohio have family ties to eastern and central Europe including Ukraine, and are very interested in those issues. As a result, I’ve gotten much more deeply involved in those issues over the last several years, including traveling to that region. And my questioning is going to focus on that.

“First, on NATO. Just to be clear, I know there was some discussion about NATO earlier, particularly Article 5, which reads an armed attack against one or more members shall be considered an attack against them all. Can you clarify that you believe Article 5 creates a binding obligation to assist any member of the alliance that is a victim of aggression regardless of their size or geographic location?”

Mr. Tillerson: “Yes, sir, I do.”

Portman: “And as Secretary of State, would you ever threaten to break the U.S. Commitment to Article 5 as a means of pressuring allies to spend more on defense?”

Tillerson: “I would not recommend that, no, sir.”

Portman: “Okay. Understanding that I think all of us around this dais would like to see our partners step up and do more in terms of the defense budget. Since 2014, Ukraine has struggled to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity against this Russian aggression. It has been discussed here a lot today. One point that has not been discussed in the way I think it ought to be is the fact that back in 1994, United States, Britain, Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement, the Budapest Memorandum, which said that when Ukraine regained its Independence following the collapse, having possessed the third largest nuclear arsenal, in exchange for giving up the nuclear arsenal, we would ensure Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. That’s very important. It sends a signal. And we talked earlier about Sam Nunn and his good work on nuclear nonproliferation. What kind of signal does that send? Clearly that agreement has been violated by Russia. And the question is, you know, whether we’re going to keep to that agreement as well in my view.

“So a couple of questions. One, in your written statement, you talk about the taking of Crimea, we’ve talked a little bit about that. Just to clarify, do you regard the Russian annexation of Crimea as an illegal occupation and annexation and in direct violation of Ukrainian sovereignty?”

Tillerson: “Yes, I do.”

Portman: “Okay. Do you pledge that the United States would never recognize that annexation of Crimea if you serve as Secretary of State, similar to the way the United States never recognized the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States?”

Tillerson: “The only way that that could ever happen is if there were some broader agreement that was satisfactory to the Ukrainian people. So absent that, no, we would never recognize that.”

Portman: “Okay. I think that’s fair. If the President-Elect were to ask you for your advice as Secretary of State on whether he should maintain sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine and in Crimea, until Russia ceased aggression and fulfilled its obligation under the Minsk agreements, what would you tell him?”

Tillerson: “As I indicated earlier, I would recommend maintaining the status quo until we’re able to engage with Russia and understand better what their intentions are.”

Portman: “Does that mean keeping the sanctions in place?”

Tillerson: “Yes, sir.”

Portman: “As Russia continues arming, training, organizing and fighting alongside this effort in Eastern Ukraine, do you support providing defensive lethal assistance so Ukrainians can defend themselves?”

Tillerson: “I think it is important that we should support the Ukrainians in all ways to protect themselves from any further expansion or aggression. I’m hopeful the cease-fires will hold. But in the absence of that, I think it is important for us to support them in their ability to defend themselves.”

Portman: “So you would provide them with defensive lethal weapons to be able to defend themselves?”

Tillerson: “That would come in consultation through the National Security Council and certainly would require the input of others, but I would support that.”

Portman: “This United States Senate is on record supporting that. The administration has chosen not to do that. They have used national security waivers, my Chairman talked about earlier. I think this is significant and I heard you say that earlier today, and I think this is a big change in terms of U.S. policy that is positive and would get Russia to the table in my view.

“We talked a lot about the terrorist threat here today and obviously that’s a growing threat that we need to address in a much more aggressive way. I believe there is another growing threat to our national security. And to this stability of our allies around the world and democratic allies in particular. It is not a kinetic or military threat, it propaganda, it is disinformation. Russia, China, in particular, but also other countries, are more and more pursuing these extensive disinformation and propaganda campaigns against the United States and other democracies. And by the way, this happened well before our most recent presidential election. And the information we have today about what might have happened here in this country, I think is part of a broader effort that we ought to be more focused on, which is this effort of disinformation. And not just by Russia. When I’ve been to Ukraine and the Baltic countries, members of NATO, I’ve been struck by the conversations I’ve had with their leadership. This is the top of their mind, top of their list. They feel like they’re under assault every day, they feel like their sovereign democratically-elected governments that are being attacked through this disinformation and propaganda campaigns. I’ve also been struck by recent public comments by officials in Germany, in the UK, and over time comments by our friends in Japan, Taiwan, and other places about these kinds of operations in the meddling in their democracies. As you know, these operations blend a range of tools and methods including cyberattacks and hacking false news, troll farms to flood the zone on social media, funding new think tanks right here in this town, and political organizations that help them. And also state owned media, some of whom are following your hearing today and are here in the room with us today. Senator Murphy and I have legislation recently signed into law that is meant to strengthen our outdated U.S. response to this disinformation, propaganda campaigns and establishes as a new agency center at the State Department to coordinate and synchronize U.S. counterpropaganda activities against foreign threats. That’s just been passed, just being set up. My question to you is, one, how would you characterize the threat posed by foreign government influence operations, not just Russia, but in general? And second, what should be done about it? Do you support the establishment at this new agency and would you put your personal support behind that?”

Tillerson: “As I indicated in a response to your question earlier, in terms of the broader threat of cyber and I put all of the activities you just described as a subset, because those are largely delivered through digital means to people and in terms of the propaganda or the undermining, the placing of fake news, all of that is done by enlarging the digital space. So it is part of this comprehensive cyber strategy, it has to include, how do we deal with all of this misinformation that goes on around the world, and there are a number of actors playing in this space, Russia most notably as you point out. But we know that others are playing in this space as well to undermine legitimate governments. To be honest, the bad actors have got the jump on us. They have been at this already for some time. And we have failed to develop a way to respond to that in that digital space. So this is a very complex technical issue I think has to be part of the comprehensive assessment of how are we going to -- how is the U.S. going to protect itself in the cyberspace, and all of the aspects of those threats that presents themselves including the one you just described. And what are the mechanisms for response, appropriate responses and how do we get international agreement around some of that, that sends messages back to the bad actors that there is going to be a cost if this continues, there is a consequence to these actions. What is that -- what is the proper proportional or if it is not proportional, maybe it is asymmetrical. I don’t know the answers. Because I think that’s part of what’s needed in a comprehensive assessment, multiagency, inner-agency driven. But that is, I think, one of the most vexing challenges in front of us, but we can’t just be vexed by it. We need to begin to address it.”

Portman: “It sounds like you acknowledge the threat. I would just add one footnote, I don’t disagree with you that our cyber response is the weakest part of our response and we need to strengthen that. But it is beyond cyber. This is, again, it is media, it is funding, think tanks that are spreading disinformation and false news. Some of it is pretty old-fashioned and, you know, we’re just not up to the task… It has to be much more sophisticated and I look forward to working with you in that regard.”