Russia's latest response to the Obama administration's attempts to deal on international issues that America wants Russia's assistance on has shown that Russia's leaders have concluded that they can extract what they want from Obama. It's not all Obama's fault, but it partially is.
We'll start with why it is Obama's fault: he hasn't stood up to the Russians. Russia does not understand anything but hard dealing. Obama made the original mistake of thinking that he could deal with them equitably. They will not deal fairly with you unless they are convinced that you will do the equivalent of what they do when they want something: they shut off Europe's natural gas supplies in the dead of winter to coerce an acceptable outcome. Having seen this, they calculated their strategy. Obama's big opening gambit to gain Russian cooperation with reining in Iran's nuclear program was to withdraw the plans for building the Ballistic Missile Defense system facilities with the Poles and Czechs, two neighbors of the Russian sphere of influence and former Warsaw Pact countries. Russia's magnanimous response? They wouldn't position additional missiles in Kaliningrad (Russia's westernmost province), saying that there was no need to escalate and that the BMD was payment for the overland supply route to Afghanistan Russia allowed in its neighboring Central Asian republics. It was nothing but a down payment on the Iran situation. So, to summarize, it is Obama's fault insomuch that he has not drawn a line and stuck to it which has allowed Russia to conclude that he is as green as they thought he was and can be rolled in negotiations. However, that is not the entire story and he cannot be compared 1:1 to any of his recent predecessors.
The United States needs Russia's cooperation to achieve its foreign policy goals more now than it has at any time since Russia was needed as an ally to defeat Nazi Germany in WWII. Therefore, the only President in modern American history that Obama can be compared to is Franklin D. Roosevelt. Not insignificantly, Russia has endured a similar cycle of events prior to Obama's dealings with them as they did prior to Roosevelt's. The domestic situation in Russia prior to Roosevelt was one of domestic strife and revolution as the old order entered its death throes and a new order emerged. Just twenty years ago, the Soviet order entered its death throes and a new order with Vladimir Putin in control emerged from the chaos of party apparatchiks turned "capitalist" oligarchs as they robbed the state blind, taking the fixtures and plumbing and doing it all with forged ownership documents produced on a laser jet printer. The Russian people turned to the Bolsheviks to stop the chaos then as they turned to Putin and his United Russia political party to stop the chaos now. We all know the story of the rise of the Soviets but, more recently, Putin reasserted a strong Russian government that brought the oligarchs under its yoke and renationalized a good deal of what had been denationalized and stolen. Putin's Russia is a relatively stable Russia that is expanding territorially instead of contracting and he is very popular with the Russian people because of it.
Obama is facing two intractable problems that he simply cannot effectively deal with unless he has the cooperation of Russia. Both are equally important with equally harsh and negative consequences in store for the United States in the case of failure. The first is the war in Afghanistan. Bush had little interest in expanding the war front in Afghanistan and, therefore, no need to modify a fairly adversarial stance towards Russia. Obama pledged to expand the war in Afghanistan during the campaign and has held firm to that pledge by working to increase American troops in-country to 63,000 by the end of the year. The current supply situation is not an envious one. The only supply routes into Afghanistan prior to negotiating with Russia was overland through Pakistan and by air through Central Asia. Overland supply routes can carry a much larger amount of supplies than an air supply route can, meaning that the overland Pakistani route would be the logical choice for the most important equipment and weapons to fighting the war. However, that's not the case. The Pakistani route is constantly under threat of hijacking by Taliban and al Qaeda fighters or criminal elements contracted by the groups to rip off the convoys. That means nothing that could be used to kill NATO & American troops (i.e. guns, artillery, ammunition, high tech equipment for gathering intelligence) can be sent by ground. That leaves the overland routes carrying essentially nothing but food and fuel. The air transport route brings in everything else and it was close to full capacity before the recent insertion of far more American troops to help implement General McChrystal's COIN (COunter INsurgency) strategy. That meant that if Obama was going to boost troop levels in Afghanistan and make a concerted effort to turn the war in our favor that he was going to have to acquire an overland supply route through Central Asian countries where law and order was intact and the convoys could be assured far safer passage than their runs through Pakistan which, for all intents and purposes, is enemy territory. So, Russia agreed to allow the United States to negotiate supply line rights with the Central Asian republics that were within its sphere of influence without receiving anything significant in return at that point. As we have now seen, the withdrawal of BMD has been communicated to us by Russia as the price we will be paying for the overland Central Asian supply route that we need to escalate the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan.
The second problem that Obama faces, which is to be considered more trouble simply because it is just as serious as the war in Afghanistan and it is going to demand further concessions to the Russians to buy cooperation, military action against Iran or simply accepting a Shiite nuclear bomb. All three have unpleasant consequences and it is now on the administration to make a conclusion about which set of consequences we can best cope with. The next bit of "cooperation" Russia will want from us will likely revolve around their bid to recreate a buffer state system to protect itself from the powers of Western Europe and a rising Turkey. Their paranoia is not exactly unfounded since they were nearly destroyed twice in the last 200 years by massive invasions across the Northern European Plain spearheaded by the two foremost European continental powers at the time of the invasions: France and Germany, respectively. The Russians are well aware that the only reason they are still speaking Russian is because they were able to trade vast amounts of land and men using a scorched earth policy to allow the elements to drive the invaders out for them. It bothers them at a very deep, Freudian level to see the foremost Western military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), right on its doorstep in the Baltic republics and considering the notion of granting Ukraine and Georgia membership to the club. Likely at the top of their wish list is for the United States to become very chilly towards Ukraine and Georgia but, specifically, Ukraine. While Georgia is a serious irritant to the Russians on their weak underbelly, the August 2008 war showed the reality of the situation in the Caucasus region: Russia refuses to be pushed behind the natural boundary to Turkish encroachment, the Caucasus Mountains, it will take military action to make sure it is not pushed behind that barrier and the United States has concluded that it is not worth direct combat with the Russians to keep their southern flank vulnerable. We were and are willing to train and arm the Georgians, but we will not go to bat for them. Plus, Georgia is likely a dead issue anyway now that Russia controls South Ossetia which controls nearly all the Georgian rump state's water supplies (and I call it the rump state because it is a shadow of its former self without South Ossetia and Abkhazia as part of its sovereign territory) as well as preventing Georgia from blocking the Roki Tunnel to prevent Russian reinforcements in the case of another war and also controls Abkhazia which has agreed (along with South Ossetia) to allow Russia to build military bases in their territory. From there Russia can strangle Georgia's most important port as it so chooses by using gunboat diplomacy. With Russia having gained control over Georgia handily, the United States backing away from Georgia will be the scraps from the table. The true objective is to get America and NATO to back away from Ukraine. Ukraine has been part of every successful Russian empire from nearly the beginning as it is intertwined tightly with southern Russia's agricultural and manufacturing segments as well as being potentially fatal to Russia if it becomes an ally of a power that wishes to use Ukraine as a jumping off point in invading Russia. Thus, buying Russia's cooperation has the downside that it would blunt NATO's expansion and that at such a high cost Washington cannot be sure firstly that Russia will vigorously pursue non-proliferation against what is basically a Russian client state in Iran. Secondly, Russia could give a good faith effort in a gasoline embargo and the embargo still may not work at which point America has given away a good deal to Russia and is rewarded by simply jumping to an option they could have chosen to start with: having to accept the existence of a Shiite nuclear bomb in the Middle East.
The problem with the second option is that our current crop of bunkerbusters is widely considered among the military and intelligence communities in the United States to be ineffective against the important Iranian nuclear targets whose destruction would set it back a few years to a decade or more. The Obama administration sped up the development of the 30,000 lbs. MOP (Massive Ordnance Penetration) bomb so that it could be mounted on a B-2 stealth bomber by July 2010, indicating that the administration (rightly) fears that talks and sanctions could go nowhere and they will be left with the least-desired option: rolling the dice on an air strike to cripple the Iranian program. In the best case scenario that the MOPs do their job, the downside will be that the United States will likely have to endure a wave of attacks from Iranian clients such as Hezbollah that have cells all over the world. The Obama administration, when making this decision, will most certainly think back to when Hezbollah's wrath was turned on America instead of Israel as it usually is and the result was a bombing in 1983 in Beirut, Lebanon resulting in the deaths of 299 military members, including 220 Marines. The worst case scenario is that the bunkers are stronger than we thought, we launch air strikes, we do little to no damage and we are now staring down the barrel at Hezbollah (and other Iranian terrorist proxies) retaliation for the strike with no tangible results to show for it. Few have also taken into account that the Iranian government has invested heavily in researching chemical and biological warfare from the moment in 1979 that the Iranian government put together its defense industry up until today and could have something horrible put back to unleash on its enemies. A military strike is literally opening a Pandora's Box because we don't have a good handle on the probability for success nor do we have a good handle on the retaliation that will come as a result of the strike regardless of our success or failure at crippling their nuclear program.
The third option is almost unthinkable. Given Iran's long history of sponsoring terrorist attacks against American targets and those of our allies, can we even contemplate a situation in which we allow them to develop and harness the most destructive power that man has ever devised? Their research, if left unchecked, will not only disrupt the balance of power in the Middle East in favor of a government that detests our closest Muslim allies in the region: Jordan and Saudi Arabia but it could also put Iran's government on negotiation footing with great powers because it will have developed weapons that can kill millions of people and be able to couple that with a delivery system that they've been honing for thirty years that surely still has cells flying under the radar awaiting the order to strike.
While Obama has set a bad example by not driving a harder bargain we also must admit that the reality of the situation has greatly shaped his behavior. The Russians are one of the few entities that can be negotiated with that also has some semblance of a chance to negotiate an acceptable end to this standoff. We do not know how it will end but we know one thing: this is the stuff that nightmare scenarios are made of.