Of all the allegories tossed around to describe the Putin regime, “Politburo 2.0” may be the most apt. The term was coined by Minchenko Consulting in a 2012 report that discarded the concept of a “collective Putin” in favor of a system that regards Russia’s power structure as a network of delegated power akin to the Soviet Politburo.

Yet this concept harking back to the Soviet era coincides with one from Russian imperial times. Putin evidently also has a “court” consisting of figures who do not have government positions but still exercise great power. How do these two models work in practice?

The Politburo 2.0 is not a formal structure. Its members don’t gather in the Kremlin’s Walnut Room, as their predecessors did, or adhere to the formal procedures of the Soviet Politburo. Instead, the Politburo 2.0 encompasses the most influential and independent centers of power in Russia―a club of select government officials and businessmen that have the president’s trust.

The composition of the new Politburo defines the official political strategy, rather than the other way round. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s admission to the high elite in 2013 foreshadowed the militarization of foreign policy. Sergei Ivanov’s removal in 2016 presaged reshuffles that began last summer and have continued until today.

Politburo 2.0 is a system built upon internal conflict. Its members can be divided into two different categories: government officials whose strength lies in the positions they hold rather than in their closeness to Putin―Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, and Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu―and businessmen from Putin’s inner circle―Arkady Rotenberg, Gennady Timchenko, and Yury Kovalchuk.

The state officials have real formal power, although they must be cautious about how they use it. The members of the inner circle can do little without the president’s say-so and do not have administrative power.

One figure, Igor Sechin, fits both categories. While he has his own powers as the head of Rosneft, he is also an old crony of Putin and has his ear.

Putin’s court can be said to have formed in 2009, when he left the Kremlin and handed over the presidency—temporarily—to Dmitry Medvedev. As prime minister, Putin was forced to restructure his life and revamp his inner circle. His court consisted of those who worked with him every day: bodyguard Alexei Dyumin, protocol officer Anton Vaino, and oligarch-lite Arkady Rotenberg.

The court was not a continuation of his earlier team but a sign that that team had been disbanded. Governing the country took a backseat to demonstrating loyalty to the boss and providing for his comfort and leisure. From 2009 to 2011, to gain Putin’s favor, one had to avoid the spotlight, abandon one’s own political ambitions, and resolve problems quickly and effectively―all without distracting the boss. 

By 2012, the year he returned to the Kremlin, Putin faced a dilemma. Should he dismantle the court and return to command and government work practices, or incorporate these practices into the court? Putin opted for the latter option, paving the way for the system of rule we see today: a formal presidential administration and cabinet bureaucracy that is complemented by the court. However, this compromise has created a system in which there are multiple loyalties and confusion about roles.

The hand of Putin’s court can be seen in a significant but poorly understood aspect of Russian foreign policy. Courtiers play a role in prosecuting the unofficial hybrid war Russia is allegedly waging in Ukraine, Syria, and on the Internet. When courtiers acquired quasi-government functions in 2012, they were able to do what Putin’s 2003 and 2007 teams were never capable of. For instance, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who used to run the Kremlin kitchen, is credited with financing the Wagner private battalion, which fights in Syria, and the Olgino troll operation.

What else does the court do? One need look no further than fluctuations in cultural policy. Most members of the August 2017 Politburo are neutral or even Western-looking on cultural issues. So why is Russia moving in a determinedly conservative cultural direction when the Politburo 2.0 is apathetic about such issues? Things make sense when you look at Putin’s court and the figure of Tikhon Shevkunov, a Russian Orthodox Church bishop who has eschewed official positions but is often referred to as Putin’s confessor. Cultural policy doesn’t concern the Politburo 2.0 but is of great interest to the court.

Personal sanctions against Putin’s inner circle dealt a serious blow to the court by making it a public spectacle. From 2015 onward, the president came to terms with the fact that he could no longer conceal his private inner circle. Equally problematic has been the court’s uneasy relationship with government. While it exists outside government structures, the court nevertheless has become part of state bureaucracy and acquired client networks.

More recently, trying to resolve contradictions between the bureaucracy and the informal elite, President Putin started to incorporate members of his court into public politics and state bureaucracy, a trend that is now known as the “personnel revolution” of 2016–2017. Putin’s protocol officer Anton Vaino and his orderlies Alexey Dyumin and Yevgeny Zinichev were appointed to public offices, ousting career bureaucrats.

How will these figures work outside the confines of the royal palace? Will they start operating by the rules of the bureaucracy, or will they try to preserve their informal court practices of dealing with the president? This dilemma has yet to be resolved.

Putin faces a long list of challenges ahead of his fourth term, not least of which is that he has no concept of the future structure of the ruling elite. For that matter, he has no strategy for Russian politics, or for the country as a whole. He has yet to decide whether to rely more on the informal courtiers he is bringing into government or on the old government structures that his courtiers have been undermining. Ordinary Russians will feel the impact of that decision, which is imminent next year.