A relationship with Putin now seems out of reach for Obama

President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit at Lough Erne in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on June 17, 2013 file photo.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

As the crisis in Ukraine has dragged on for weeks with no resolution in sight, the relationship between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have hit a new low.

Sure, Putin said last week that he was sure Mr. Obama, a "courageous and good person" would save him if he were drowning. But it appears that any solution to the conflict in the region will likely not be driven by the strength of Mr. Obama and Putin's communication skills.

Even after diplomatic talks in Geneva last week yielded the first potential breakthrough to alleviate the rising tension in eastern Ukraine, the president was pessimistic about the prospects for peace.

"I think there is the possibility, the prospect that diplomacy may deescalate the situation and we may be able to move towards what has always been our goal, which is let the Ukrainians make their own decisions about their own lives," the president told reporters during a press briefing. "My hope is that we actually do see follow-through over the next several days. But I don't think given past performance that we can count on that, and we have to be prepared to potentially respond to what continue to be efforts of interference by the Russians in Eastern and Southern Ukraine."

In addition to sounding like he has no faith Russia will change course, the president sounds like he has no faith in his own ability to alter Russia's behavior.

The New York Times reported over the weekend that Mr. Obama has abandoned any hope of a good relationship with Putin, less than four years after he declared a successful "reset" of U.S.-Russia relations. Now, the Times reports, the president will merely look to "minimize the disruption Mr. Putin can cause, preserve whatever marginal cooperation can be saved and otherwise ignore the master of the Kremlin in favor of other foreign policy areas where progress remains possible."

The change comes after Mr. Obama's attempts to coax Putin into calling off pro-Russian forces occupying buildings in eastern Ukraine led nowhere. Descriptions of the phone calls between the two men issued by the White House and the Kremlin often sounded like two entirely different conversations. It was not unlike a phone call between the president and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., earlier this week that the president described as "very pleasant" while Cantor found it to be partisan posturing.

The new reality of the Obama-Putin relationship certainly doesn't mean an end to U.S.-Russia relations entirely. The U.S. continues to maintain supply routes to Afghanistan through Russian territory and carry out nuclear inspections under a treaty from the president's first term. And the U.S. must continue to work with Russia on removing chemical weapons from Syria and forging an agreement to rid Iran of its nuclear weapons program.

"I think the White House feels that to the extent that Putin still wants to be seen as a figure of a global stage, he really has to continue to work with the U.S. in Syria, certainly on the chemical weapons disarmament and probably also in the Iran negotiations," Washington Post columnist David Ignatius said on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday. The trouble, of course, is that even international pressure seems to do little to deter Putin. Last week, Andrew Weiss, the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told CBS News, "Putin has shown that he is willing to run serious risks in Ukraine and that he doesn't care very much if the rest of the world condemns Russia's actions."

The question that remains is whether further sanctions on key sectors of Russia's economy could shape Putin's behavior at this point. The president said last week that his administration is readying further "consequences" for Russia's actions. The last round of sanctions is already taking a toll on Russia's economy. At this point, the administration has made clear, it is letting Russia chose its own fate.

"We will be watching whether Russia does or does not uphold its responsibility to use its very considerable influence to restrain and withdraw those irregular militia from the buildings and spaces that they've occupied. We'll look to see what Russia says, what it does," National Security Advisor Susan Rice said last week.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.