By Patricia Zengerle and Yeganeh Torbati
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said on Wednesday he favored maintaining current U.S. sanctions against Russia for now and that NATO allies were right to be alarmed by Moscow's growing aggression.
Tillerson's backing for a more assertive policy toward Russia than Trump has espoused was tempered, however, by his refusal to commit to support maintaining President Barack Obama's executive order authorizing additional sanctions against Moscow because of its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Tillerson, oil company Exxon Mobil's former chairman and chief executive who had extensive business dealings in Russia, refused to call President Vladimir Putin a war criminal and kept the door open to a possible change in U.S. sanctions policy against Russia, saying he had not seen classified information on Russian meddling.
"I would leave things in the status quo so we are able to convey this can go either way," Tillerson said, suggesting "open and frank" dialogue with Moscow to better understand its intentions.
Tillerson stopped short of endorsing some of Trump’s most hardline positions on a number of foreign policy issues, including the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, relations with Mexico, and climate change, which could lead to areas of disagreement between him and the White House if he is confirmed.
He left room for broad reversals or changes to Obama policies, including trade with Cuba and the Iran nuclear deal, which he said ought to undergo a full review.
The hearing was interrupted sporadically by protesters opposed to Tillerson's nomination. He is expected to be confirmed.
'ABSENSE OF AMERICAN LEADERSHIP'
Tillerson's responses were calm and measured, without any obvious reliance on notes. But he appeared unsure of the facts around Exxon Mobil's lobbying on sanctions and sidestepped questions on pressing issues such as human rights worldwide and matters like whether he would allow a traveling press corps at the State Department.
He blamed Russia's increasing aggression toward Ukraine since 2014 on an "absence of American leadership" and said there should have been a defensive military response by the United States to deter the Russians from further encroachments.
"I'm advocating for responses that will deter and prevent further expansion of a bad actor's behavior," he said.
Tillerson said it was a "fair assumption" Putin was aware of Russian efforts to interfere in the U.S. election. He said he had not discussed Russia policy with Trump, which Democratic Senator Robert Menendez said was "pretty amazing."
Some of Tillerson's answers may reassure skeptical Republicans and Democrats concerned that Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, will act on his stated aim to improve ties with Russia by revoking all, or some, sanctions against Moscow.
In one of the most tense exchanges, Republican Senator Marco Rubio pushed Tillerson hard on whether he believed Putin was a war criminal, specifically referring to Russia's military actions in support of Syria's government.
"I would not use that term," Tillerson said, adding: "Those are very, very serious charges to make and I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion."
Rubio, who ran against Trump for the Republican presidential nomination and whose vote on the committee is key, shot back: "There's so much information out there. It should not be hard to say that Vladimir Putin's military has conducted war crimes in Aleppo."
He added: "I find it discouraging, your inability to cite that which I think is globally accepted."
IRAN DEAL REVIEW
On another contentious matter, Tillerson said he would recommend a "full review" of the nuclear deal with Iran reached with the United States and other world powers, but he did not call for an outright rejection of the 2015 accord in which Tehran agreed to curtail its nuclear program in exchange for relief from crippling economic sanctions.
Trump has made contradictory statements about the nuclear deal and threatened at one point to dismantle it.
Tillerson also faced questions on China's response to North Korean missile tests and whether he would be able to make unbiased decisions after a long career at Exxon Mobil, the world's largest publicly traded oil producer.
Tillerson was also grilled on his views on climate change but dodged a direct question about whether he believed it was caused by human activity.
"The risk of climate change does exist and the consequences of it could be serious enough that action should be taken," he said, adding: "The increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our abilities to predict that effect are very limited."
His hearing came at a time of fraught ties with Russia. U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia was behind the hacks of U.S. political figures in an effort to help the Republican Trump defeat Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 8 election. Moscow has denied the allegations.
In another disclosure, also denied by Moscow, two U.S. officials said on Tuesday that classified documents that the heads of four U.S. intelligence agencies presented last week to Trump included claims that Russian intelligence operatives had compromising information about him. Trump dismissed the reports, first made by CNN, as "fake news."
Tillerson opposed U.S. sanctions against Russia in 2014 over its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine because he said he thought they would be ineffective.
On Wednesday, he said he never personally lobbied against sanctions and emphasized that he was not aware of Exxon Mobil directly doing so.
Tillerson later acknowledged he spoke to U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew regarding gaps between American and European sanctions on Russia.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy vigorously challenged Tillerson on the issue, saying he called a U.S. senator to express concerns over the measures, which "likely constitutes lobbying."
(Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington and Ernest Scheyder in Houston; Writing by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)