While Secretary of State John Kerry has poured his energy into unlikely peace missions in the Middle East, a violent crackdown against protesters in Ukraine was left simmering on the back burner of U.S. priorities for months, only recently commanding President Obama's attention.

Vice President Joe Biden has made several calls to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, but Obama waited until violence boiled over to threaten “consequences if people step over the line.”

But critics said the administration's engagement was too little, too late - that Obama's studied detachment prevented him from chalking up an easy outcome in Ukraine months ago when anti-government protesters first took to the streets to oppose Yanukovych's tilt toward Russian President Vladimir Putin and authoritarian control.

Dozens perished in violent clashes in Kiev between security forces and protesters after the government launched a brutal crackdown — a dramatic shift after a peaceful compromise appeared within reach.

Critics lay most of the blame on Obama, not Kerry, for slow-walking a response to the crisis in Ukraine.

“Kerry is trapped … he is working under a president who is profoundly ambivalent about exercising power” around the world, said Faysal Itani, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

The uprising in Ukraine could quickly become another missed opportunity – this time for the U.S. to bolster a pro-western movement in Russia's backyard.

Critics said Obama failed to see the standoff in Ukraine in the proper context.

The president in a press conference at the North American Leaders Summit said he didn't view Syria and Ukraine as part of “some Cold War chessboard,” insisting that the administration's response was not motivated by a competition with Russia.

With the Sochi Olympics reviving Russia's confidence and memories of its superpower days, Obama was trying to tamp down the rising tensions between himself and Putin. He framed the events in Syria and Ukraine as “an expression of the hopes and the aspirations of the people.”

Jeffrey White, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the U.S. is doing little to preserve those aspirations by continuing to stand on the sidelines for far too long.

“The problem isn't the absence of options,” he said. “The problem is an absence of will on the part of the president.”

Brian Hughes contributed to this report.