By Kristina Wong and Jeremy Herb - 03/08/14 12:08 PM EST
If there is a new cold war with Russia, many observers believe the U.S. is losing it.
First under President George W. Bush and now under President Obama, the U.S. and Vladimir Putin’s Russia have engaged in a series of foreign policy battles — and Putin has repeatedly got his way.
Diplomatic fights over Syria in 2013 and Russian’s military clash with Georgia in 2008 have given Putin confidence in the current fight over Russia’s invasion of Crimea, a region in eastern Ukraine with long ties to Moscow.
“He's counting that there would be no significant response from the U.S. and the European Union and so far he’s been right,” Brattberg said.
Lawmakers and experts across the political sphere warn that if the Obama administration and its western allies are not effective in dealing with Putin this time, it could have serious consequences going forward.
And the dangers go beyond Putin.
China is closely monitoring what’s going on, Brattberg said, and could become more assertive in territorial disputes with its neighbors if it sees the West back down from Russia.
Of particular concern is a small group of islands in the South China Sea that both China and Japan claim, he said. If China were to use military force against Japan, the U.S. would be contractually bound to defend it.
“It’s not like the Chinese are sitting there [thinking], ‘What can we take tomorrow that we maybe thought we couldn’t do a month ago,’” said Gary Schmitt, a resident scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
“It’s more the case that some incident will happen and they’ll calculate: “Look, the U.S. really isn’t going to react,’ and they’ll take advantage of that situation,” he said.
Putin has arguably emerged as the victor in a series of confrontations with the U.S.
In 2008, Putin caught U.S. officials flatfooted and annexed Georgian territory without serious repercussions, according to a recent interview in the Washington Post with Daniel Fata, deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy from September 2005 to September 2008.
Last August, Russia thumbed its nose at the U.S. by granting former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden asylum after he leaked classified material to the press and fled the country.
In September, Putin got the U.S. to back down from military strikes against ally Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, by brokering a last-minute deal to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons.
The deal had the advantage to Russia of ensuring Assad could stay in power, and since the deal Assad has solidified his control of the country.
Although Russia's invasion of Georgia happened during the Bush Administration, Brattberg said Putin views Obama as particularly weak and his "reset" policy as naive.
“Putin sees Obama as a weak leader. I would point to Syria in particular. We drew a red line and didn’t back it up,” he said.
The administration has pushed back at such criticisms, with Obama this week saying Russia’s actions were a sign of weakness that would isolate the country.
The administration has taken several steps to make that happen.
The U.S. has sent six additional F-15 fighter jets to Poland to bolster a NATO air policing mission, and announced sanctions and visa restrictions that could be imposed on Russian leaders and entities found to have threatened Ukraine’s sovereignty.
But the efforts appear to have done little to slow Russia down.
Crimea’s autonomous parliament appears to be moving ahead with a vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. A referendum is planned on March 16.
Schmitt said that for the United States to turn the tide, it should take stronger steps such as admitting Ukraine into NATO or sanctioning Russia’s gas exports.
“The legacy [for Russia] would look like: ‘It looked good at the time but now it looks like we really stepped into it,’” Schmitt said.
Brattberg said the U.S. should be doing more to lead and unify a fragmented European Union.
“There has been some disconnect over sanctions between some European Union countries, and there is the need for the U.S. to really show leadership and lead them in the same direction,” he said.
Critics doubt the administration can provide this leadership at a time it is looking to focus on domestic policy, end the war in Afghanistan, and pivot to the Asia Pacific.
At the SASC hearing earlier this week, Republican senators decried shrinking defense spending as a part of the U.S’s GDP at a time when the U.S. was being challenged by Russia and China.
The White House’s 2015 budget request, unveiled earlier this week, would hold defense spending nominally flat for a third year and a decline in real terms.