Looking at the bigger picture, Putin probably also thinks the United States needs him more than he needs us at the moment. The Obama administration, he likely believes, is desperate to avoid further trouble in the Middle East. In Syria, in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and in the Iranian negotiations, it is out on a limb, engaged in very high stakes diplomacy where the odds don’t favor it. Russia can’t do a lot about the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but it can probably spoil the Iran negotiations and make Syria an even more horrible diplomatic and political problem for the Obama administration than it already is. Indeed, Samantha Power is now stating that Syria is dragging its feet in negotiations over the destruction of chemical weapons facilities. The U.S. should not expect any help from Russia as it searches for progress in Syria.
Putin can therefore inflict a great deal of pain on President Obama and American diplomacy if he chooses, and one suspects that he likes that. It’s possible that in happier times there were people in the Obama administration who believed that Putin would help them out diplomatically either because Russia and the US have common interests win Syria or over the Iranian issue or because he would prefer to help liberal, presumably more dovish Democrats consolidate power in Washington rather than making them look bad and easing the path for Republicans back into the White House.
Putin, however, doesn’t look at things that way. He appears to believe that under its dovish rhetoric the Obama administration was trying to detach Ukraine from Russia—a mortal threat to Russia’s vital interests as the Kremlin sees them. The Obama administration’s human rights rhetoric and its habit of making irritating though not genuinely wounding gestures (like sending gay delegates to the Sochi Olympics) angered the Russians without weakening them, and we can be sure that Putin believes in his gut that if some kind of Kiev style protest movement rose up in Moscow to drive him from office, that the United States would give it as much help as we dared.
From a Russian point of view, there already was a cold war between Moscow and Washington, and the West’s effort to snatch Ukraine last fall was a unilateral escalation of that conflict and an existential threat to the foundations of both the Putin government and the Russian national project. Putin believes he is fighting back and it looks as if his interest in punishing Obama over Ukraine is greater than his (limited and conditional) desire to keep working with Obama on issues like arms control.
From Putin’s point of view, there is much less difference between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans than narcissistic westerners might think. He sees the whole United States as his geopolitical arch-rival and sees differences between liberals and conservatives as arguments about the best sauce to cook Russia with. Reagan brought the Soviets down and George H. W. Bush reunified Germany and anchored it in NATO, but the Clinton administration rammed NATO expansion down a weak Yeltsin’s throat and Obama was ready to scoop Ukraine into the western swag bag if Russia hadn’t stopped him.
Just as Jimmy Carter did not understand that his human rights advocacy ruined his hopes for a new era of detente and arms negotiations with the Soviet Union, the Obama administration’s policy makers don’t seem seem to understand that their Ukraine policy (which they don’t ever seem to have thought much about one way or the other) contradicted their reset policy in a way that would alienate and enrage the Russians. Now, from the Kremlin’s point of view, it may be the Obama administration that has fallen into a trap. Domestic political pressures are meshing with the President’s own sense of legality and morality in international affairs to push the United States towards trying to make it look as if our sanctions and other responses are imposing. In fact, they will and must be fairly ineffective, and Russia can use its influence over events in Syria and Iran to cause more pain to Obama and more damage to America’s international standing.