WASHINGTON D.C. – The flaring of global hots spots such as Ukraine and Syria dramatically illustrates the dwindling influence of President Obama in foreign affairs and the staying power of his perennial rival, Russian President Vladimir Putin, analysts say.
The deadly clashes between anti-government demonstrators and security forces in the heart of Kiev this week erupted after the Ukrainian government shrugged off a series of private and public appeals by the Obama administration for democratic reforms and restraint, and most recently the threat of sanctions.
The unrest also spiraled within days of the collapse of Syrian peace talks in the Obama administration’s effort to find a resolution to that 3-year-old civil war.
Supporting both governments is Mr. Putin, the prime antagonist of the U.S. on the world stage for nearly all of Mr. Obama’s presidency.
“Putin fully understands that Barack Obama’s rhetoric will continue, but there will be no substantive U.S. actions,” former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton said Thursday.
The U.S. is “giving up a lot of ground to Putin,” said Kurt Volker, executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University.
Mr. Volker said failure to get the upper hand over Russia is symptomatic of a wider trend in which the administration has sought to avoid making global leadership the central underpinning of its foreign policy.
“I think we have an administration that wants to avoid getting involved,” said Mr. Volker, who cited a range of conflicts including the protests gripping Bangkok and the violence in Sudan.
Some analysts say Mr. Obama is charting a careful and calculated course of neutrality, contrasting with the dangerous and costly military adventurism of his predecessor.
Asked about his relationship with Moscow, Mr. Obama, who lobs mild public taunts at Mr. Putin, said he doesn’t view the crises in Syria and Ukraine as part of a strategic contest between the U.S. and Russia.
“Our approach as the United States is not to see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia,” Mr. Obama said Wednesday. “Our goal is to make sure that the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about their future, that the people of Syria are able to make decisions without having bombs going off and killing women and children because a despot wants to cling to power.”
Some observers see consistency in Mr. Obama’s approach, rooted in a philosophy of avoiding military action after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr. Obama came close to launching missile strikes on the Syrian regime last year after it used chemical weapons, but he backed off when Mr. Putin offered to broker a solution.
“The main constraint on the Obama administration is the domestic U.S. consensus — that after two wars, there is limited to nonexistent support for foreign entanglements,” said Robert Litwak, an analyst of the Middle East at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.
Others question whether U.S. interests are truly at stake in the conflicts.
“Even with Ukraine — historically part of the Russian empire and Soviet Union — I would love to have it leaning toward the U.S., but this is not a security issue for the West,” said Doug Bandow, a foreign policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute.
“There’s nothing vital at stake. It’s kind of a geopolitical preference as opposed to a vital interest.”
White House aides said Mr. Obama is weighing “with urgency” sanctions against individuals in Ukraine because of the loss of life.
In Syria, the administration has imposed a wide range of sanctions against the regime of President Bashar Assad and provided military aid to rebel groups, but those actions haven’t succeeded in toppling Mr. Assad or slowing the death toll in the war.
The U.S. also has spent more than $1 billion on humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees.
Conservatives worry that Mr. Obama’s approach to these conflicts is creating a power vacuum that encourages leaders like Mr. Putin and Mr. Assad.
“Forces who have grievances step up and try to do something, and they find that there’s no international order that is willing to step up and counter it,” Mr. Volker said. “The more they keep going, the more things get out of control. That’s what you’ve seen with Assad in Syria. He’s doubled down. You’ve seen it with the Egyptian military as well. They’ve doubled down. The Russians have doubled down.
You see it with al Qaeda in Syria and Iraq. You see it with Iran moving Hezbollah into Syria.”
Mr. Volker’s institute was formed by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a frequent critic of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy.
Mr. Bolton said the president “does not live in the real world of power.”
“Other countries are watching the inability or unwillingness of the United States and Europe to do anything about this,” Mr. Bolton said on Fox News. “This is just a terrible display of American withdrawal and neo-isolationism on the part of Obama.”
White House deputy press secretary Joshua Earnest tried to brush aside accusations that Mr. Putin is getting the better of Mr. Obama by expanding his “spheres of influence” in Ukraine and Syria.
“It is not in Russia’s interest and it’s not in the world’s interest for there to be this continued violence and instability in Ukraine,” Mr. Earnest said. “It is not in Russia’s interest, I think, as they themselves have said, for their client state, Syria, to be coming apart at the seams based on some sectarian tensions.”