Joe Biden has warned that hostile nations would quickly "test" the young new president with a "generated crisis," and Biden seems to have been right.
But the challenge didn't come from the part of the world Obama spent the most of his campaign discussing, the broader Middle East. On the day after he won the election, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev offered an aggressive warning that he would respond to a planned NATO anti-missile shield by moving nuclear weapons to its western enclave of Kaliningrad. And the sword-rattling has continued: Tuesday, the Russian navy began joint exercises near Caracas with Venezuela's military.
Obama enters office signaling that he will continue the policies of President Bush's late second term in Iraq and Afghanistan, and key architects of those policies, starting with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, will likely keep their jobs. That would leave Russia as the unexpected laboratory for Obama to shape his own foreign policy.
Leading Democratic Russia experts said they anticipate dramatic changes to a Bush policy that eschewed arms treaties, and shifted rapidly from viewing Russia as a key ally in the War on Terror to a hostile enemy of the freedom of its former satellites.
"There is right now a kind of gathering of the clan of the Russia wonks, some of whom will be in the administration," said Strobe Talbott, who was President Clinton's top Russia adviser. "The Obama administration is going to have to do something that the Bush administration avoided doing for years — and that is treating Russia as a first-class strategic challenge."
Only the outlines of Obama's approach to Moscow have emerged so far. Running against McCain — a career Russia hawk — he signaled that he would aim for the difficult balancing act of working with Russia on common concerns, from Iran to arms control, without backing off the positions that rankle Russia most, like enlarging the North American Treaty Organization (NATO) to include Ukraine and perhaps Georgia. In the troubled Caucasus, he also showed a greater willingness than did McCain to work with France and other European powers who have had warmer relationships with Russia.
But he's also surrounded himself with people who consider themselves realists on the dangers posed by Russia's leadership, and he chose as his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who attacked Putin personally on the campaign trail, saying at one point that then-President Vladimir Putin "doesn't have a soul." (He shot back with the suggestion that she lacks a brain.)
Obama's campaign did not respond to requests for comment on the shape of his Russia policy. They also refused to give his informal policy advisers, like Stanford's Michael McFaul, permission to speak to a reporter. But the makeup of Obama's Russia team offers a glimpse of his stance, which tends toward hostility toward the autocracy introduced by now-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It includes Mark Brzezinski, a Clinton National Security Council official, and was led by McFaul, who has warned for years that there's no silver lining to Putin's authoritarian cloud.
The Russians were almost alone among nations in greeting Obama with official hostility.
"[Medvedev] seems to have assumed that [U.S.] campaign rhetoric was totally equivalent with future policy," said former Ambassador Thomas Pickering, Clinton's envoy to Moscow. "It badly backfired on them, particularly internationally with Obama's worldwide popularity. Medvedev was the one person who was ungenerous and maybe a little bit feisty on Obama."
In an interview with the French paper Figaro earlier this month, Medvedev appeared to offer Obama a deal on the missile defense system.
"We are prepared to drop our decision to deploy missiles at Kaliningrad if the new American administration decides to abandon its anti-missile system," the Russian president said, adding that he thought Obama was "thinking about it."
"We hope to create frank and honest relations with the new administration and resolve problems that we were not able to resolve with the current administration," he said.
Overall, Medvedev's signals have been decidedly mixed: He announced plans to meet with the anti-American leaders of Venezuela and Cuba, but then while in Washington for the G20 summit said that his hostile words on the day after Obama's election were an "oversight." More recently, he and Putin have both struck conciliatory notes, with Putin saying he thinks Obama will be "more constructive" than Bush, and Medvedev seeing him as "more careful."
But Medvedev's first, hostile move may actually have backed Obama into a corner on the missile system, which is set to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic, said Gary Schmitt, a Russia scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who said he's concerned Russia will take advantage of Obama if he backs away from supporting the system.
"If you decide you're going to pull out of [the missile defense] agreement in any fashion, it won't be seen for policy reasons, it will be seen as a sign of backing down from Moscow," he said. "What's going to matter is how Moscow reads that."
Obama is leaving himself room to maneuver.
"President-elect Obama made no commitment on it. His position is as it was throughout the campaign, that he supports deploying a missile defense system when the technology is proved to be workable," his campaign's top foreign policy staffer, Denis McDonough, told ABC News.
His stance seems to be clearer on other issues, on which he hopes to restart some of the negotiations that ended with the Clinton administration. While President Bush was skeptical of arms-reduction treaties, Obama is expected to embrace them.
"The Obama administration is clearly going to make an effort to jump-start a process or a mechanism that has been in idle if not in reverse for eight years," said Talbott, now the president of the Brookings Institution, who said he has no plans to return to government.
Also in the tangle of top issues on which Obama is likely to engage Russia: the Iranian nuclear program, which Russia has at times aided.
"There shouldn't be any difference between the U.S. and Russia on whether it's desirable to have a nuclear-armed Iran," said Talbott. Near Iran, and with a large Muslim population, Russia "has more to fear than we do," he said.
But Obama will also face issues on which cooperation appears trickier. At the top of the list is NATO enlargement, which Obama is on record as supporting in principle, and now faces the choice of continuing the Bush Administration's aggressive tack, or moving at a slower pace.
"The question is whether the administration, when it gets into power, will push NATO enlargement or ride with the Europeans for a while," said Pickering.
"I'm quite confident that he will not shut the door on further NATO enlargement," said Talbott.
The role of NATO under Obama appears to have already had some impact on Russia's nervous neighbors already in the alliance. Central European, Eastern European and Baltic nations were key Bush allies and charter members of the dwindling "coalition of the willing" in Iraq.
But now they are shifting their priorities to match the new administration's: The last Polish troops, for instance, left Iraq at the end of October, just as the country announced it was beefing up its mission to Afghanistan, a pattern repeated across the region's militaries, down to smaller nations like Latvia, whose detachment of nearly 150 in Iraq is being replaced by a similar-sized deployment to Afghanistan.
The Latvian ambassador to Washington, Andrejs Pildegovics, told Politico the campaign had given former Soviet states and their neighbors comfort that he will stand up to Russia.
"The president-elect has stated clearly that there are no so-called 'spheres of influence' and there is to be no intimidation of nations," he said.