Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson spent Wednesday carefully trying to strike a balance between projecting strength to Russia, without saying anything that could complicate President-elect Trump’s desire to strengthen relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Tillerson’s statements on Russia were some of the most anticipated aspects of his confirmation hearing, due to a combination of the cyberattacks against the Democratic party in 2016, Trump’s unwillingness to blame Russia for those hacks, and Tillerson’s acceptance of a friendship award from Putin after negotiating a major energy deal during his tenure as Exxon Mobil CEO.

With respect to the cyberattacks conducted against the Democratic party, and how the United States should respond to them, Tillerson was relatively muted.

“I have had no unclassified briefings because I’ve not received my clearance yet,” Tillerson told Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “However, I did read the interagency report that was released on Jan. 6. That report clearly is troubling and indicates that all the actions you described were undertaken.”

The question of who carried out the attacks has been deeply controversial since the height of the presidential campaign, when Trump stated that he does not believe the Russians were behind the hacks and leaks. The president-elect stuck with that position after the election and accused the CIA of participating in an attempt to undermine his presidency. He received a classified briefing on Russia’s actions last week, but didn’t publicly accept the findings until Wednesday morning.

“I think it was Russia, but I also think we’ve been hacked by other countries, other people,” Trump said during a press conference.

Tillerson’s encounter with Rubio — who has expressed doubt about Tillerson’s suitability for the role and has an influential post as one of 10 Republicans and nine Democrats hosting his confirmation hearing — soured as the lawmaker pressed him to criticize Putin and endorse sanctions retaliating against the hacks. Rubio and several other lawmakers introduced legislation Tuesday evening that would impose mandatory sanctions on Russian intelligence agencies and other entities involved in the cyberattacks.

Tillerson opposed the mandatory language, saying that a president should have the traditional authority to waive sanctions for national security reason. But Rubio made clear that he believed Tillerson is trying to leave the door open to Trump allowing Russia to go unpunished.

“You want to have the president to have the flexibility to decide which countries to sanction and which ones to not sanction,” Rubio said. “In essence, because you want … to take other things into account, like for example the desire to perhaps improve relations with that country and therefore the president maybe doesn’t want to sanction them even though they’re attacking us.”

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Tillerson also said that he lacks the information required to know if Trump should repeal Obama’s retaliatory sanctions on Russian intelligence officials. “I would want to examine it in all aspects of it, in consultation not only with the president, but with other inter-agencies that are going to have input on this,” Tillerson said.

Rubio wasn’t pleased, but moved on to Tillerson’s assessment of Putin — a subject that provoked the Florida senator’s most pointed criticism of Trump’s top diplomat. Asked if Putin is “a war criminal,” Tillerson demurred.

“I would not use that term,” Tillerson said. He told Rubio, and New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez after him, that he needed to receive a briefing on Russia’s prosecution of the military campaign in Syria to draw that conclusion. “I would not want to rely solely upon what has been reported in the public realm,” he said. “I would want confirmation from agencies who would be able to present me with indisputable facts.”

Rubio responded by chronicling a series of Russian military attacks on civilians in Syria. He even accused Putin of orchestrating a “black flag operation” terrorist attack in Moscow carried out by Russian intelligence imperatives and then using it as an excuse to kill “an estimated 300,000” Chechens in the country.

“And if you want to know the motivation, here’s what it is: Putin’s approval rating 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 said. “So based on all this information and what’s publicly in the record about what’s happened in Aleppo and the Russian military, you are still not prepared to say that Vladimir Putin and his military have violated the rules of war and have conducted war crimes in Aleppo?”

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

Rubio, who said in December that “the next secretary of state must be someone who views the world with moral clarity,” made clear his displeasure with that answer.

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

From the perspective of senators alarmed by Trump’s rhetoric about Russia during the election, Tillerson’s strongest moments came when discussing the NATO alliance and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the committee, said he was encouraged by Tillerson’s comments on the need to protect eastern Europe from Russian aggression, even as Tillerson criticized President Obama’s response to Russia. Tillerson said Obama should have armed Ukraine and provided intelligence and aerial surveillance on the eastern border of Ukraine immediately upon realizing that Putin had taken Crimea.

“If Russia acts with force — the taking of Crimea was an act of force, they didn’t just volunteer themselves — so it required a proportional show of force to indicate to Russia that there will be no more taking of territory,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson vowed that the United States commitment to Article V of the NATO alliance “is inviolable and the U.S. is going to stand by that commitment,” as he put it to Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind.

When Young asked specifically if he would support defending a small NATO ally such as Estonia from Russian invasion, Tillerson replied that he would, “if that is the consensus of UN members that that is an appropriate use of Article V.”

Tillerson shouldn’t expect the questioning about Russia to let up, however. Young, in an apparent effort to require him to offer more specific answers to some policy questions, noted that Tillerson’s security clearance has been approved. The freshman senator asked if Tillerson would attend and intelligence briefing “this evening … focused intently on Russia.”

Tillerson replied that he would. “I look forward to having access to the additional information,” he said.

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