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Germans see Smurf in Scholz. Putin might, too

Earlier this year, Olaf Scholz, the former finance minister being sworn in as German chancellor, was sitting in on one of many coronavirus crisis meetings. He was looking inscrutable as he often does, which can come across as smug. He could have been thinking about anything, but a Bavarian colleague reprimanded him for “grinning like a Smurf.”
By something close to national consensus, the label was declared a perfect fit and stuck. In real life, Scholz isn’t blue and doesn’t live in a mushroom house. But many of the Germans I’ve asked swear they see a resemblance. When Spitting Image, the satirical British TV show, launched its “Krauts’ edition,” Scholz was duly cast as a Smurf.
More tellingly, Scholz himself has embraced the joke and has proudly adopted his new persona. He loves the Smurf comparison, he told a German talk show host: “They’re small and cunning and they always win.”
Is this reassuring? Russian President Vladimir Putin is massing troops along the Ukrainian border; Nato fears a full-bore invasion. Sars-CoV-2, including its new omicron variety, is spreading faster than ever in Germany; and the country’s economy is suffering as a result. The list of problems goes on and on. And Germany is happy to enter the Smurf era?
The country’s allies have long decried Germany’s solipsism, its tendency to duck leadership responsibilities in the European Union and Nato — whether financial, economic, diplomatic or military in nature. Notably, Germany spends far less on its army than alliance members have pledged, and it’s unclear whether a Scholz government will change that.
His predecessor, Angela Merkel, compensated in part with sheer gravitas. The Smurf chancellor won’t have that. Expectations by allies aren’t high that post-Merkel Germany will finally pull its weight.
Scholz could still surprise us. If so, it’ll be in part thanks to one of his coalition partners, the Greens. Their leaders have adopted a firmer and even confrontational tone in talking about the need to stare down autocracies like Russia and China, and to stand with democracies like the US.
One of their leaders, Annalena Baerbock, will be foreign minister. She’s on record for wanting to halt the Nord Stream 2 project, a pipeline that connects Russia and Germany under the Baltic Sea and that Putin could use to replace existing gas links through Ukraine. Nord Stream is completed but not operational yet. If Putin does invade Ukraine, nixing this pipeline would be Germany’s best contribution, short of a military response, to sanctioning Russian aggression.
The other partners in the coalition, the pro-business Free Democrats, might go along with that. The problem will be Scholz’s own Social Democrats. By tradition, they’re Russophile, and prefer appeasing rather than confronting Putin. Nord Stream 2 was largely their idea. The previous SPD chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, is chairman of its shareholder committee and besties with Putin. Scholz’s appointment as defense minister, the other cabinet position that would deal with a Russian attack, is also ambiguous. To general surprise, he named Christine Lambrecht, a Social Democrat who has been minister of justice and families in the Merkel administration. There’s nothing wrong with her. But she’s never hinted at any knowledge of, or interest in, military or strategic matters.
On the other hot front, the struggle against Covid-19, Scholz’s semaphores are clearer.

—Bloomberg

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