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Starting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s relentless laying of the blame for the worldwide financial crisis on American greed (a charge I wish I could dispute with more vigor), Moscow has lately had a lot of fun tweaking Washington. Immediately after the presidential election, however, it went into a kind of pigtail-yanking overdrive. No sooner or later than November 5, Russia threatened to place nuclear weapons in its westernmost enclave in response to the long-planned NATO anti-missile shield in Poland. On November 11, its officials made Obama’s transition team blanch by erroneously announcing a meeting between Obama and Dmitri Medvedev of which the president-elect wasn’t even aware. On November 26, the Russian navy did a joint exercise with Venezuela’s while Medvedev listened to Hugo Chavez fawn over his achievements in creating a “multipolar world.” At that meeting, Medvedev went as far as suggesting that Russia might join ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for People of Our America), a proposal that seems to have taken even Chavez by surprise. He finished the Latin American stunt in style later that week, by visiting Fidel Castro in Cuba. Meanwhile at home, the anti-U.S. rhetoric has grown harsher than anything the stateside reader may imagine. Western writers mostly use the possibility of “a new Cold War” as a splashy lede; the Russian media have long been operating under the notion that it’s already in full swing. One reaction that sticks in my brain is from a young female blogger in St. Petersburg, who laments a coming war with the U.S. because “all my favorite bands are from that country.”

This is a dismal state of affairs, but, since Barack Obama doesn’t strike me as a man easily rattled by puerile provocations (and, one more time, as a still-useful thought experiment, let’s imagine President McCain’s reaction to the threat about Poland), we can filter out most of this noise. Russia is governed by extreme realpolitik--all talk of ideology, of what Alexander Vershbow terms “values gap” and Daniel Fried calls “the moral difference,” is irrelevant; this time, aside from profit and influence, the Moscow power elite has no ideology, values or morals to speak of. In fact, I believe the actual Russia-U.S. interactions over the next four years will boil down to the following few flashpoints:

NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia. The brazen idea to waive the requisite “training program” and fast-track these former U.S.S.R. territories into NATO is shaping up to be the last in the impressive list of the Bush administration’s diplomatic failures. Last week, the NATO foreign ministers kicked that can at least ten years down the road, and Obama should let it stay there: Fast-tracking Ukraine and Georgia for NATO membership would be the quickest imaginable shortcut to an all-out confrontation with Russia. In response to such a prospect for Ukraine, for instance, Moscow can easily destabilize parts of the country by turning off the gas (Ukraine owes $2.4 billion to Gazprom), get the Kremlin-friendly Party of Regions to wreak havoc in the Ukrainian parliament, and talk hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking, pro-Putin Eastern Ukrainians into quickly accepting Russian citizenship - the trick it had used in Ossetia. The splintering of the country in two would be a global game-changer. Given Moscow’s influence over Belarus and Kazakhstan, the addition of Eastern Ukraine to Russia's portfolio would, for all practical purposes, reanimate the Soviet Union. If Obama were to continue the Bush policy, it would help validate the Kremlin’s fiction of “Russia as a besieged fortress”-- the very fiction that fortifies the current regime. One of Putin’s key domestic triumphs has been convincing his subjects that all democratic movements beyond their borders are directly financed by the U.S.; even the opposition believes the “color revolutions” were the work of Western agencies. Oddly enough, the time for resuming NATO talk for Ukraine and Georgia would be after the U.S.-Russian relations improve.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Here, whatever progress is reached through multilateral talks, President Obama would be wise to let the Russians grab the credit. The two countries’ goals are not terribly dissimilar: Russia, with its Muslim population of over 20 million, is no more enthused about nuclear-armed ayatollahs than the U.S. At the same time, there is money to be made (Iran’s existing nuclear structures, among many other things, are the work of Russian contractors); thus the question of sanctions, for Russia, is a simple matter of how much business it is willing to lose. Considering that Moscow is dying to play international dealmaker, letting it look good (while getting pretty much the same assurances the U.S. would want to squeeze out of Iran anyway) should be acceptable compensation.

At this point, I am beginning to seem like an advocate of giving Russia whatever it wants. Luckily, here comes the fast-approaching Arctic standoff. Russia’s designs on the Arctic are as ridiculous as they are real. In 2001, the country had submitted a territorial claim for about half of the Arctic circle, including the North Pole, citing an “underwater ridge” that connects it to its main landmass. On August 2, 2007, a lavishly funded expedition descended 13,980 feet below the Pole and stuck a titanium tube with the Russian flag into the ocean bottom. The Obama administration would do well not to give into this unprecedented bullshit, and to make overtures to the less excitable players in the region (Canada and Norway), before Russia plants more than flags there. The estimated 100 billion barrels of oil under the ice cap, and an exclusive new shipping route should that cap melt, are understandably alluring, but the perspective of the Arctic as an ill-defined, endlessly disputed fossil-fuel Klondike is the stuff of both Dick Cheney’s and Al Gore’s nightmares.

Finally, there is the more general issue of the United States' reputation, which is less nebulous than one may think: after all, it is the main source of rhetorical ammo the Kremlin uses to justify its own behavior domestically and in Europe. Inside Russia, our image as hectors and hypocrites is well-cemented and at least somewhat deserved. (The average U.S. politician or journalist may not remember or even know that Russia was once promised WTO membership in return for assuming the Soviet Union’s debt, but her Russian counterpart sure does). Barack Obama, thanks to his very newness, is well-positioned to fix it – and so, for the exact opposite reason, is Hillary Clinton, whose husband is routinely blamed for many of the broken promises of the ‘90s. It may sound mawkish, but, in order to make a lasting change in the U.S.-Russian relationship, President Obama would do well to spare a bit of his world-class charisma on charming the people directly. Russia seems hopelessly addicted to cult of personality -- any personality, be it the blank-faced Putin or the squirrelly Medvedev -- and there is an upside to that: there are still Russians who worship Jack Kennedy. A state visit with all the attendant pomp would cement Obama’s already considerable celebrity there; and if Bill Clinton was astute enough to quote poet Anna Akhmatova in one of his Russian speeches, I’m sure Obama’s people would come up with something even more endearing. I recommend the lyrics of the beloved ’80s band Kino (“I Want Change”). Such a visit would be useless for influencing the current inhabitants of the Kremlin on any specific policies, but it might pay long-term dividends down the line if -- I dare not say when -- Russia gets to something resembling democracy.

Michael Idov is a contributing editor at New York and the editor-in-chief of Russia! magazine, which released its winter issue last week.

By Michael Idov