Pity America's embattled allies in Eastern Europe and the Middle East when President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet at the United Nations Monday.
While Mr. Obama insists on welcoming the Russian autocrat whom the West has sanctioned for invading his neighbors and repressing his own people, he has refused to meet the president of Egypt, the most populous Arab nation and a traditional American ally that is battling Islamic extremists on two fronts.
In an interview, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry expressed guarded optimism about Russia's growing military and diplomatic involvement in the Middle East and ongoing efforts to end the four-year-old war in Syria, which has killed more than 250,000 and forced millions of Syrians to flee.
Mr. Shoukry said he hopes that Russian mediation might help find a "solution" to the crisis given Moscow's "longstanding relationship" with Syria's regime, referring, among other things, to Russia's naval base in Tartus, its only Middle Eastern port.
"All the international community should be involved in trying to end Syrian suffering and find a solution," he said.
In Kiev last week, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko expressed relief that the Russian forces occupying his country had finally stopped firing shells into its industrial heartland in a conflict that has killed 8,000 of his compatriots. The lull in fighting, he added, suggests that Mr. Putin might finally honor the agreement he signed in February in Minsk to withdraw his forces from eastern Ukraine and permit Ukrainians to decide their own political fate by holding free and fair elections.
Both statements reflect official policy. But interviews in Kiev, Cairo and Washington paint a starkly different picture. Speaking not for attribution, officials and analysts in the capitals paint Mr. Putin's motives and objectives as far from benevolent.
Rather than trying to resolve conflicts, they say, Mr. Putin has been using them to embarrass the United States and its allies, undercut American military and political leadership and reassert Russian influence in areas vital to Russian national security. And in both Eastern Europe and the Middle East, many fear, Mr. Obama, who seems to lack a coherent strategy for either, is playing into Mr. Putin's hands.
In Ukraine, Mr. Obama's steadfast refusal to provide defensive military support to Kiev — opting instead to provide such "nonlethal" items as night vision goggles, prepackaged meals and bulletproof vests — has enabled Mr. Putin to consolidate the gains of his invasion and annexation of Crimea and his quest for even more land in eastern Ukraine, whose territorial integrity the U.S., Britain and Russia vowed to protect in 1994, when Kiev gave up its nuclear weapons.
At the recent Yalta European Summit, an annual gathering of officials and analysts in Ukraine sponsored by Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk, several attendees asserted that while Moscow has paid a high economic price because of Western sanctions for Russia's annexation of Crimea, Mr. Putin shows no willingness to back down.
Rather than withdraw his 9,000 forces from the industrial heartland in eastern Ukraine or stop arming, training and leading some 40,000 pro-Russian rebels there, he seeks to "freeze" the conflict temporarily while working to destabilize Mr. Poroshenko's reform-minded government.
"Sending mixed signals to Putin only supports his aggression," warned Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. "We need defensive weapons. There is no military solution to the conflict," he said. "But there is no solution without serious military support."
Filling the vacuum
Nor does the recent lull in fighting welcomed by Mr. Poroshenko necessarily reflect a change of heart by Mr. Putin. His focus is now on dispatching men and materiel to Syria, where his embattled ally, President Bashar Assad, is losing power to the Islamic State and other militant Muslim rebels. Mr. Assad now fully controls less than a fourth of his own country.
"Putin may not have the wherewithal to manage a war on two fronts simultaneously," said Thomas O. Melia, a former senior State Department official who is executive director of Democracy International, a Washington-based group.
Nor does Mr. Putin wish to mar his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, his first in 10 years. Mr. Melia notes that Russian forces invaded Crimea the day after the Winter Olympics in Sochi ended. The lull in fighting in Ukraine may prove similarly short-lived.
By stationing as many as 2,000 troops in bases around the Syrian port of Tartus and providing Syria what IHS Jane's estimates are sophisticated combat aircraft, 24 ground attack planes and bombers, as well as six air attack helicopters, Mr. Putin seeks not only to weaken the Islamic State and bolster the flagging Assad regime, but to outmaneuver regional players such as Turkey and position Moscow as the decisive architect of a post-war order.
His strategy is winning adherents, among them Ankara. To defeat the Islamic State, the Russian president argues, Mr. Assad, who has killed more of his own people than have Islamic extremists and whose repression has swelled the terror army's ranks, must stay in power, at least temporarily.
Long concerned that Russia's involvement would help Iran, Cairo's rival and Moscow's ally, dominate the region, Egypt has been seeking high-level reassurance that Washington will support its traditional Arab allies. But even though Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been battling Islamic State-like groups in the northern Sinai Peninsula and in the western desert near the border with chaotic Libya, the White House nixed a meeting with him at the U.N., officials said.
Seeing no response to Moscow save empty words of warning, Egypt's chief has met with Mr. Putin twice. Other regional players also have made pilgrimages to Russia, even Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently visited Moscow to discuss how best to avoid accidental military clashes given Russia's growing presence in Syria.
The White House has portrayed Mr. Obama's refusal to meet his Egyptian counterpart as a scheduling issue. Mr. Obama "is conducting only a very limited number of bilateral engagements at UNGA," a spokesman said.
But Egyptians and other Arab officials see the rejection as yet another indication that the U.S. president is downgrading America's traditional Middle Eastern relationships to build an alliance with their historic rival, Iran, and its ally and arms supplier, Russia. Administration officials have spoken openly about their desire to use the new nuclear agreement with Tehran to explore expanding cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State and in other areas where national security interests converge.
Asked whether Mr. Putin's aggression in Ukraine and growing intervention in Syria is his way of "defying" the U.S., White House press spokesman Josh Earnest recently replied that Russian conduct in both is analogous in that they "underscore the waning influence of Russia in those two areas." Come again?
Testifying last week on Capitol Hill, retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, a former CIA director, broke with Mr. Obama by urging the U.S. to commit more U.S. military support to Syria to protect civilians in enclaves, better recruit and train rebel forces and ground Mr. Assad's air force if he continues dropping barrel bombs on his own people.
Russia's conduct is a reminder that "when the United States does not take the initiative, others will fill the vacuum," Mr. Petraeus warned, "often in ways that are harmful to our interests."