'These things happen': Rex Tillerson refuses to blame Putin for murders of political opponents
Rex Tillerson (C-SPAN)

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) asked Rex Tillerson point-blank whether Vladimir Putin was a war criminal -- and Donald Trump's pick for secretary of state blinked.

"I would not use that term," said Tillerson, the longtime chief executive of Exxon Mobil who was awarded the Kremlin’s Order of Friendship in 2013 .

Rubio, who expressed "serious concerns" about Tillerson's nomination last month, detailed alleged Russian war crimes in Syria and listed some of Putin's political opponents who have been murdered.

"Do you believe that Vladimir Putin and his cronies are responsible for ordering the murder of countless dissidents?" Rubio asked.

Tillerson said he didn't have enough information to make that claim, and Rubio asked if he was aware that Putin's political opponents "wind up dead all over the world" -- and he asked whether those slayings were simply coincidental.

"Well, people who speak up for freedom in regimes that are oppressive are often at threat, and these things happen to them," Tillerson said. "In terms of assigning specific responsibilities, I would have to have more information."

Tillerson said he would need classified information available to cabinet members before advising the president about the topics Rubio had brought up, including bombing campaigns in Aleppo and Chechnya.

"None of this is classified, Mr. Tillerson," Rubio said. "These people are dead."

Rubio reminded Tillerson that Putin, shortly after becoming Russia's president, blamed Chechens for a series of bombings in Moscow, and he personally ordered the air force to bomb the former Soviet republic's capital.

"They used scud missiles to hit hospitals, the city's main outdoor market packed with shoppers -- 137 people died instantly," Rubio said. "They used thermobaric and fuel-air explosive bombs -- these are the bombs that ignite, and they burn the air that (is) breathed in by people who are hiding in basements. They used cluster munitions. He used battlefield weapons against civilians, and when it was all said and done, an estimated 300,000 civilians were killed, and the city was completely destroyed."

Rubio told Tillerson that many reports claimed the Moscow bombings that prompted the carnage in Chechnya had actually been carried out by Russia's Federal Security Service as part of a "black flag" operation.

"If you want to know the motivation, here's what it is," Rubio said. "Putin's approval ratings before the attacks against the Chechens was at 31 percent. By mid-August of that year, it was at 78 percent, in just three months."

Rubio asked Tillerson again whether he believed Putin's military had committed war crimes at his direction.

"Those are very, very serious charges to make, and I would want to have much more information before reaching a conclusion," Tillerson said. "There's a body of record in the public domain, I'm sure there's a body of record in the classified domain, and I think in order to deal with a serious question like this, I would want to be fully informed before advising the president."