And so far, Putin appears to be winning.
The Russian president defied Obama again Tuesday in an emotional address to the Russian parliament, where members cheered him enthusiastically. Putin didn't sound like he was about to succumb to Obama's limited sanctions, which froze the U.S. assets of several Putin aides. Far from it. Reclaiming the Crimea area of Ukraine as part of Russia, Putin declared, "Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia in the hearts and minds of people."
On Sunday, people in Crimea voted overwhelmingly to separate from Ukraine and become part of Russia. This prompted Putin to sign a decree declaring that Crimea was indeed part of Russia.
Putin said derisively that Obama and his Western allies falsely believe in their own "exceptionalism" and are convinced that they are "the chosen ones" who can "decide the destinies of the world, that it is only them who can be right."
Faced with this bravado, Obama and his advisers say an incremental, careful approach is the best course. They argue that Putin and his ruling regime in the Kremlin will eventually respond to tightening sanctions and condemnations from the West. "Going forward, we can calibrate our response based on whether Russia chooses to escalate or de-escalate the situation," Obama said.
But critics such as Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., say Obama has been feckless, and this emboldened Putin to gobble up Crimea and possibly take a more aggressive approach elsewhere in the world.
Putin surely realizes that Obama's political position at home is weakening and Americans are wary of confrontation after two costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Polls find that most Americans are adamantly opposed to any unilateral U.S. intervention in Ukraine, and significant numbers simply want the United States to stay out of that crisis.
A Real Clear Politics average of public polls finds that only 42.8 percent of Americans approve of Obama's job performance, and 52.6 percent disapprove. About 28.6 percent say the country is headed in the right direction but 62.7 percent say it's on the wrong track.
It's very possible that Putin and Obama have correctly interpreted the will of their separate peoples. Putin believes most Russians want some restoration of their previous empire, and Obama believes Americans are war weary and want to focus on problems at home. This is likely the recipe for more tension between Washington and Moscow for the foreseeable future.
Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser to President George W. Bush, told The New York Times that Putin "wants to rewrite the history that emerged at the end of the cold war. We have fundamentally different approaches to what Europe is going to be."
During recent months, the relationship between Obama and Putin has deteriorated. Putin has blamed the United States for fomenting protests in Moscow. He has rejected Obama's request to restart nuclear arms reduction talks. And he allowed into Russia Edward Snowden, the former U.S. contractor who has leaked a huge amount of classified information and is wanted for prosecution in the United States.