Obama, right, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin pose for members of the media before a bilateral meeting at the United Nations headquarters. | AP

Rift in Obama administration over Putin

The president’s reluctance to respond assertively is signaling U.S. weakness and indecision, some officials say.

Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Syria is creating new rifts inside an exhausted and in some cases demoralized Obama national security team, where officials pushing for bolder action see the president as stubbornly unwilling to assume new risk as he nears his final year in office.

Current and former Obama officials say the president’s reluctance to respond more assertively against Putin is signaling U.S. weakness and indecision. “We’re just so reactive,” said one senior administration official. “There’s just this tendency to wait” and see what steps other actors take.

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Putin’s direct military intervention — following years of indirect support for Syrian ruler Bashar Assad — has broken any momentum Obama had after sealing his nuclear deal with Iran. Secretary of State John Kerry had hoped to follow through on the agreement by working with Iran and Russia to win a political settlement in Syria, a goal that now seems fanciful. Adding to the frustration is the high-profile failure of the Pentagon plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, which is being downsized.

“They’re on their back feet right now,” said a former senior Obama foreign policy hand.

Obama has recently approved the supply of ammunition to Kurdish and Arab fighters in northern Syria, and the Pentagon training program is being repurposed to arm trusted rebel commanders in the field. Midlevel officials throughout the administration have also been asked to “dust off old plans,” as one put it, and brainstorm new potential approaches to Syria and Russia.

But expectations are low that those efforts will lead anywhere. Sources familiar with administration deliberations said that Obama’s West Wing inner circle serves as a brick wall against dissenting views. The president’s most senior advisers — including National Security Adviser Susan Rice and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough — reflect the president’s wariness of escalated U.S. action related to Syria or Russia and, officials fear, fail to push Obama to question his own deeply rooted assumptions. “Susan and Denis channel him,” says a former administration official who has witnessed the dynamic.

That dynamic is not new. But Putin’s escalation has combined two of Obama’s biggest foreign policy headaches — a newly aggressive Russia and Syria’s civil war — into one throbbing migraine.

In senior meetings, some of Obama’s top national security officials have pressed for a bolder response to Putin’s muscle-flexing in Syria. They include Kerry, who has argued for establishing a no-fly zone in Syria, an option Obama recently suggested is “half-baked.”

A former Cold War nuclear deterrence expert, Defense Secretary Ash Carter has fretted that the U.S. isn’t standing up firmly to Putin's provocations. And CIA Director John Brennan has complained that Putin is bombing Syrian rebel fighters covertly backed by his agency with seeming impunity.

“The optics are that we’re backing off,” said a former Obama official who handled foreign policy issues. “It’s not like we can’t exert pressure on these guys, but we act like we’re totally impotent.”

Obama’s refusal to take firmer action against Moscow has increasingly isolated several of his administration’s Russia specialists, who almost uniformly take a harder line toward Putin than does the president himself. They include Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs; Celeste Wallander, the National Security Council’s senior director for Russia and Eurasia; and Evelyn Farkas, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. Farkas’ recent announcement that she will exit the Obama administration this fall raised eyebrows among officials aware of her frustration that Obama hasn’t responded more forcefully to Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his support for pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east. (Farkas has told friends that she is not resigning over policy disputes.)

Obama did face a public challenge in the form of an interview on CBS' “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday, in which the president grew visibly annoyed as interviewer Steve Kroft pressed him on the modest results of his campaign against the Islamic State and on whether Putin was successfully “challenging your leadership.”

Standing his ground, Obama repeated his argument that it would be a mistake to overreact to Putin, who he says is acting out of weakness, and that the Syria morass defies the kind of “silver bullet” solution sought by his critics.

The critics increasingly include Democrats. White House officials are said to have reacted with irritation when Hillary Clinton proposed a Syria no-fly zone earlier this month, lending credibility to an idea mainly backed by Republicans. Kerry has also pushed for a no-fly zone in northern Syria along Turkey's border, which could provide a humanitarian haven for refugees — but would also create a de facto challenge to Russia's freedom in the skies.

This is not the first time Obama has dug in against national security officials urging bolder action, both in Syria and against Putin’s Russia.

In late 2012, Clinton, then secretary of state, joined CIA Director David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in presenting Obama with a plan to arm and train a moderate Syrian rebel force. Obama vetoed the idea. (He did approve a modest covert CIA training program in 2013 after the Syrian regime used chemical weapons, and last year he approved the $500 million Pentagon training program that is being downsized after a sputtering start.)

The pattern repeated earlier this year, when a consensus emerged among Obama’s top national security advisers, including Kerry and then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, that the U.S. should supply lethal military aid to Ukraine, including shoulder-fired Javelin anti-tank missiles. During his February confirmation hearing, Carter said that he, too, was “very much inclined” to provide heavier weapons to Ukraine. Again, Obama knocked down the idea, worrying that Putin would simply further escalate in response.

Some officials argued that Obama should keep the possibility of supplying of lethal weapons as a card to play against Putin in the event the Russian took newly provocative steps — which he now has in Syria.

But there are no signs Obama is seriously reconsidering the idea.

In a sign of the complexities the Obama team faces, few officials can be easily placed in a neat hawk or dove box. Kerry, for instance, has long favored a no-fly zone in Syria. But he frustrates the administration's Russia hawks, who prefer to isolate Putin, with his reliable belief in the benefits of continued dialogue with Moscow.

That reflects a view that pragmatic engagement with Moscow is the best way to accomplish U.S. aims. That theory may have received a little-noticed boost earlier this month. While critics point out that Putin began airstrikes two days after his sit-down with Obama at the United Nations, there was unexpected good news from Ukraine soon after, when Russian-backed rebels agreed to postpone disputed elections that threatened a fragile truce. The elections had been a key discussion point between Obama and Putin in New York. Even so, the Russia hawks believe that Putin and Kerry's Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, generally string along and mislead the U.S.

On the flip side, many Pentagon officials want the U.S. to more actively counter Russian ambitions in Europe — while doubting the efficacy of proposals to take more action in Syria. Martin Dempsey, the recently retired chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, argued that the U.S. should consider sending lethal aid to Kiev. But Dempsey was a vociferous opponent of a Syria no-fly zone, which he called risky and said could cost $1 billion per month at a time of Pentagon budget cuts.

A new paper published by the Army War College concludes that the Russian intervention in Syria “is not necessarily a major setback for U.S. policy.”

“I feel that we have a much more deeply held concern about what is going on in Ukraine than we do about pulling a rabbit out of a hat in Syria,” said the paper's author, W. Andrew Terrill, a professor at the War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and a retired Army lieutenant colonel. “The Lebanese civil war lasted 14 years and was very difficult to stop.”

Other military officials believe the U.S. can stand up to Putin without getting entangled in Syria by contesting Russian aggression in other theaters, from the Arctic to Eastern Europe and the Baltics, where Russia has stepped up provocative overflights challenging foreign airspace. In a speech last week at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, NATO’s top naval commander proposed a stronger U.S. response to the recent deployment of six Russian Kilo-class attack submarines to the Black Sea.

The commander, U.S. Navy Adm. Mark Ferguson, called for a more active allied response, including identifying new bases where the U.S. Navy’s P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft could operate, saying that “you do not get better sitting in port doing synthetic exercises.”

It's unclear whether Obama is entertaining that idea. But even officials who grumble that Rice and McDonough discourage dissenting views — sometimes by invoking exaggerated, straw-man versions of recommendations — concede that there is plenty of discussion in national security meetings at the White House. Just little action.

As one of the former officials put it: “This is driven by one man, and one man only, and it is Barack Obama.”

Bryan Bender contributed to this report.