Written by Matt O’Brien, CNN
Germany will witness a historic transition to new leadership at the helm of one of the world’s most powerful and stable nations.
Peter Altmaier will replace Angela Merkel as Chancellor — she announced her resignation last week after 12 years in office — as she prepares to hand the reigns to her protege.
Altmaier holds a tough set of priorities: navigating Britain’s exit from the European Union and steering Germany’s relationship with its biggest trading partner, as well as dealing with a fraught relationship with Russia.
His leadership will also be up against the challenges posed by a rising populist movement, and Germany’s strong economic performance, a stark contrast to other Western nations that have seen long-term growth more muted.
(Other leaders from other G7 nations, including Italy, Canada and France have also changed over the last year or so.)
But as a longtime ally and adviser to Merkel, 53-year-old Altmaier comes with some comfort in navigating difficult international waters.
(It’s worth noting that foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel stepped down at the end of August.)
Facing a fractured domestic political landscape
Altmaier hasn’t always appeared comfortable in the spotlight. A former teacher and public speaker, he has a more intellectual sheen than his openly more outgoing and self-confident predecessor, the charismatic Merkel.
On Sunday, German journalists continued to rank Altmaier among the most well-known German politicians, despite not being able to point to anything in his record that would qualify him as a leading player in politics — an unpopular trait for ministers in Germany.
Altmaier will be faced with a political landscape that’s sorely divided between left and right.
On the right, France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen has drawn strong support and inspired a surge in extremist activity at home.
On the left, the far-left party, Die Linke, has also drawn plenty of attention in recent months and may pose a further political threat to Altmaier in the future.
Russia: Still a challenge
Altmaier — who will stay on as Merkel’s chief of staff — also faces a difficult relationship with Russia.
After the successful sit-down summit between Trump and Putin in Finland earlier this month, tensions between Merkel and the U.S. president have been strained over Europe’s continued tolerance of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
In recent weeks, Altmaier has been forced to play down rumors that relations are at rock bottom.
He also maintains a calming influence as he tries to steer Germany’s position within NATO while ensuring that Putin knows that the political climate in the country won’t soften toward Moscow in the future.
Russia has set its eyes on the key target of the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol, which lies on the country’s southern fringe, nearly 400 miles from its Black Sea naval base of Sevastopol.
It has emerged as the next key strategic point in Ukraine following repeated missile strikes from Russian territories that the EU, United States and NATO have been accusing Moscow of orchestrating in recent months.
The city has also seen sporadic clashes since April — incidents that the United States said last week showed that the Russians had “not yet exited,” and that he continued to target it with a “concerted effort to intimidate.”
Putin said Friday that he would wait and see how German politicians responded before deciding whether or not to respond militarily to a renewed Russian military campaign.
As he heads into the 2018 federal election campaign, Altmaier will also take to the international stage, where Germans are used to some high-profile leaders, with Merkel often leading the way.
Altmaier will have to find ways to balance the pressures of both sides of the Atlantic, keeping Merkel’s conservatives up to speed in the run-up to the election next year, while also appearing statesmanlike abroad.
But his experience as Merkel’s confidant and advisor may well give him the edge in dealing with internal political pressure in the country.
Political Analyst Andreas Seibert of the University of Aachen told CNN: “This is a coming together of the two strategic centerpieces of the post-war order — the Western order led by the United States and the European order led by Germany.
“Neither of these in Europe is functioning so effectively now, so Berlin has an opportunity, that has not been possible in the past.
“Peter Altmaier will get his hands dirty in an atmosphere where it has not been possible in the past.”