When Olaf Scholz won the German elections in September, the chances are Russia was the last thing on his mind.
Seven weeks on, it is surely the first thing he thinks of each morning.
Mr Scholz is not even chancellor yet, but he already has a Russian problem. He is still in talks to form a government but he is facing crises on multiple fronts, and behind all of them is the unmistakable hand of Vladimir Putin.
The Russian president appears to be running a carefully co-ordinated campaign to test Western resolve in a world without Angela Merkel, who has long been seen as the “Putin whisperer”, and on whom the West has long relied to deal with him.
Russian troops are massing on the Ukrainian border, and the US is warning of a possible invasion.
Belarus has engineered a migrant crisis on its border with Poland that threatens to spiral into violence and most of the migrants want to get to Germany. Russia has cut gas supplies to Europe, sending prices soaring with winter looming, and is openly pressuring Germany to rush the Nord Stream 2 pipeline into operation. The official line from the Kremlin is that these issues are not connected, but that isn’t fooling anybody.
To an extent, of course, Mr Putin is testing the Biden regime’s commitment to Europe and Nato in the wake of the US’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.
But the timing of the latest moves suggest they have more to do with Ms Merkel’s imminent retirement. Russia began slowing gas supplies almost immediately after the German elections and it has ratcheted up the pressure as Mr Scholz grows closer to taking power.
Ms Merkel has called Mr Putin twice this week to press him to intervene with Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko and defuse the crisis on the Polish border – without success.
That puts Mr Scholz under pressure, but the job doesn’t come automatically with the German chancellorship. It is one Ms Merkel carved out for herself and the chances are Mr Putin wants to see if anyone is prepared to step into her shoes.
Ms Merkel distrusted Mr Putin from the start. When he came to Berlin in 2001 and told the German parliament that Russia was “a friendly-minded European country” that wanted “stable peace”, she told colleagues: “This is typical KGB talk. Never trust this guy.”
Yet she was able to do business with him in a way that eluded most Western leaders. In 2008, when she blocked Georgia and Ukraine’s attempt to join Nato, he told her he “would never forget what she had done”. But at the height of the 2014-15 Ukraine crisis, Ms Merkel spent more time talking to Mr Putin about Ukraine than Barack Obama, David Cameron and François Hollande put together, according to a US official at the time.
All eyes will soon be on Mr Scholz, to see if he can fill the role. But he may find his room to manoeuvre is limited by his Social Democrat party (SPD).
“Scholz is a tough guy. The question is more whether his hands are tied to Moscow by his party,” Prof Jurgen Falter, a leading German political scientist told Bild newspaper. “There is a strong pro-Russia faction in the SPD.”
There is speculation Ms Merkel could yet intervene to put Nord Stream 2 into operation and defuse one more row with Russia before leaving power. But that seems unlikely as the pipeline is held up by German regulators and Ms Merkel is a caretaker chancellor with limited powers. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd, 2021)