With bureaucrats like this, Vladimir Putin doesn't need friends.
Anton Vaino has worked in the Russian government for over a decade, cycling through all sorts of obscure, meaningless titles and navigating the Kremlin's tunnels of bureaucracy. On Friday, the 44-year-old Estonian-born official became Vladimir Putin's chief of staff.
He will fill the role once held by Sergei Ivanov, 63, who served with Putin in the KGB and was one of his most trusted advisers. The change comes a month before Russia's parliamentary elections, as Russian-Ukrainian tensions have again started to escalate and economic difficulties have continued.
Though it is still unknown why Putin demoted the 63-year-old Ivanov—the Russian leader said in a seemingly scripted meeting that the aide asked for the demotion—a look at Vaino's resume reveals a well-oiled cog in the government machine. He started out as a diplomat in Japan in 1996. From there, he made his foray into government through the Russian Foreign Ministry. He then spent years in positions that involved overseeing other officials and branches of the government.
Starting in 2002, he worked in the Office of Presidential Protocol, which is tasked with organizing the events that Putin attends at home and abroad. He assumed positions like "deputy head" and "first deputy head" until his 2007 appointment as deputy chief of government staff, from which he rose to chief of the government staff in 2011.
There, Vaino served as the bureaucrat of the bureaucrats, watching over the day-to-day activity of the Russian government: giving instructions to federal agencies, and overseeing judiciary policies, legislative activity, the media, and more.
During Putin's third term, Vaino became deputy chief of the presidential administration, second to Ivanov. He handled scheduling, record-keeping, and other "technical" work.
If all that sounds like the career of a colorless administrator, former Kremlin officials would agree. Several of them described Vaino as someone whose professional track matched his personality.
"Vaino is far from pure politics and the siloviki [politicians with military or security backgrounds]. He knows Putin on a personal level," one former official told Vedomosti. "He is not tied to any clans or nomenclature. An administrator. A bureaucrat in the best sense of the word."
"He did not play politics," said another. "He is an administrator."
Another former official dubbed Vaino "an apparatchik of the highest class" in a Facebook post congratulating Putin on his choice.
"For many years he ran the daily work schedule of the president. He is very polite! Always collected and organized," the ex-official wrote.
Vaino also has, for the Kremlin, a noncontroversial background.
He was born in the Estonian SSR to an elite Soviet family "with a silver spoon in his mouth," one Russian source told Vedomosti. His grandfather Karl Vaino was the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Estonia for a decade, but barely spoke Estonian. He was a hardline enforcer of Russification: banning Estonian culture and language in favor of all-Russian everything, whether the public liked it or not. As calls for Estonian independence continued to build throughout the 1980s, his time as leader came to an end.
Estonia, a NATO country that last year planned to build a fence to keep the Russians out, took note of Vaino's background, spotlighting it in news stories about the promotion.
But as far as the Kremlin goes, there appears to be nothing suspicious or extreme about the man. And Vaino's profile—that of a detached careerist—could be what Putin finds appealing about him.
"Ruling Russia is becoming a lonely business; Putin doesn't need his friends to help him anymore," wrote political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya in an essay for the Carnegie Moscow Center.
The Russian leader's maneuvering does not appear far off from that of his predecessors. In his 1976 book Lenin in Zürich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's young Lenin defined "political genius" as the sort of prudential switch-ups seen in today's Kremlin.
"At any given time one or two people emerged to take their place at his side, people who for the moment were intellectually closer to him, more interesting, important, and useful than anyone else, people who particularly stimulated him to confide in them, to discuss things with them, to act in concert with them," Solzhenitsyn wrote. "Once one of these transitional people grew obstinate, ceased to understand why his duties were necessary and urgent, began to mention his mixed feelings or his own unique destiny, then it was just as natural to remove him from the main road, dismiss him, forget him, abuse and anathematize him if necessary."
In steps Vaino at a time when Russia is hardening its regional posture, using an Iranian base for Syrian airstrikes and deploying air-defense missiles in Crimea. Ivanov, meanwhile, has been reassigned to the position of Special Presidential Representative for Environmental Protection, Ecology and Transport.
"Vaino is not one of Putin's friends; he works for the president, not with him. For one's career, it is now more important to be close to Putin in the present than to have been a close associate in the past," Stanovaya wrote. "It is becoming clear that Putin does not want faithful advisers, he wants acolytes."