“Telamons Holding the Sky”: Russian Views On Evolving Global Balance Of Power


Russian thinking on the future multipolar world order is based on what Sergey Lavrov called “strategic patience”. It has a sense of inevitability – like it or not, sooner or later multipolarity will establish itself since the world system tends to reach power equilibrium, writes Valdai Club Programme director Andrey Sushentsov.

Russian worldview significantly relies on its strategic experience in line with the Realist tradition, that was formed by Russia’s reach history of conflicts and negotiations. In Moscow’s perspective, states are major players in global issues and conflict is a key process. While the world is interconnected, peace, stability and development are fragile. Major countries share responsibility for stability and development of a fragile globalized world. They govern and settle disputes through the United Nations Security Council and should commit to international law. In Russian view, dictate is impossible and global war is obsolete. World is too complex and international environment is too thick for unilateralism. This environment requires delicate balancing and mutual recognition of vital interests. International stability is a product of balance and should be a key common goal. The proper metaphor to describe Russia’s worldview would be “telamons holding the sky” – great powers upholding the world order.

Moscow believes that major countries – “telamons” – present natural centers of world gravity. They tend to establish themselves as important stakeholders and require recognition. They also bear unique responsibility for international security and stability of development. They act as rational players, and if pushed, would fight back. Any weakening of one of the “telamons” is temporary – eventually they will recover and reclaim their respective rights. Developing countries can join the club of the “telamons”, sharing responsibility for upholding world order.

This worldview produces specific assessment of threats to international stability. The biggest one – world imbalance as a product of unilateralism. Only together “telamons” can maintain the world order – the “sky”. When they fight each other, the “sky” is falling on everybody. The “sky” is hard to uphold due to its colossal weight, “telamons” quarrels and unpredictable crises.

Idea of a power balance as a foundation of the new world order has developed in Russia out of disappointment about inability to reach global equilibrium in a peaceful and voluntary way. Initial Russian expectation was that the US-Russia relations after the Cold war would evolve to form «a new alliance of partners working against the common dangers», thus leading the way to the new world order, that will «unite the globe through our friendship» (Camp David Declaration, 1992). 

In the Washington-drafted bilateral statements of the early 1990-s Russia subscribed to the US view that this new order – “an enduring peace” – will be based on common values and commitment to democracy and economic freedom (Camp David Declaration 1992). Russia agreed that the new world will be “a democratic peace that unites the entire community of democratic nations” (Friendship Charter 1992). More important in Moscow’s view was the fact that the US and Russia would hold a special responsibility for maintaining international peace and security as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (Friendship Charter 1992, Vancouver Declaration 1993), thus becoming two major pillars of the new world order.  

At the same time in the Moscow-drafted bilateral documents with the US, Russian diplomacy stressed necessary principles that should guide the development of the new world order – “equality, mutual advantage, and recognition of each other's national interests” (Moscow Declaration 1994). Russian proposals contained significant geopolitical aspects. Those included four major areas – strategic disengagement measures in nuclear missiles targeting, role of the UN as a global governance body, mutual recognition of the NAFTA and CIS integration processes and creation of a new European security order that should have been “inclusive, non-discriminatory and focused on practical political and security cooperation” (Moscow Declaration 1994). At that time, Russia still believed that its cooperation with NATO would strengthen peace in Europe, not ruin it. While early Russian foreign policy documents always contained phrasing «equality», this phrasing was lacking when the same documents were drafted in Washington.

Rise of a unilateral approaches in the US foreign policy, enlargement of NATO and aggression against Yugoslavia in the second half of the 1990-s forced Russia to step back from the common agenda with the US and strengthen the geopolitical argument in its foreign policy. As early as 1996 Russia stopped sharing the Western thesis that partnership is possible only on a basis of common values and synchronization of internal political and economic structures. From that time on Russia stressed that diversity of development models is important, and focus on internal affairs will lead to dysfunctional relations.

An example of this thinking for the first time was manifested in the “Russian-Chinese Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order” (1997). Russia and China found common ground in describing global future as the “multipolarity” – “peaceful, stable, just and rational new international political and economic order” based on the primacy of the U.N. Security Council. This order was described as a network of a “new type of long-term interstate relations not directed against third countries” aimed at “strengthening of world peace and the common progress of mankind”. Fundamental norms of that order were respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, non-aggression and non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual advantage, peaceful coexistence and adherence to international law (Russia-China Declaration 1997).

Carefully crafted language of the Declaration proclaimed that a “diversity in the political, economic and cultural development of all countries is becoming the norm”. Document claimed that every country has the right to choose path of development due to its own specific conditions and without interference from others: “Differences in their social systems, ideologies and value systems must not become an obstacle to the development of normal relations between states” (Russia-China Declaration 1997).

The Declaration expressed optimism, stating that global peace and security can be achieved through bilateral and multilateral cooperation. The agreement between Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and China on mutual reduction of armed forces and confidence-building in the military field in the border area was presented as a model for the achievement of regional peace, security and stability. This optimism was also based on the rise of the developing countries that Russia and China expected to become new centers of world gravity and “provide powerful impetus for the historical process of establishing a new international order”. Document highlighted that no country should seek hegemony or engage in power politics, and expressed concern at attempts to enlarge military blocs, since this trend can “aggravate tension on a regional and global scale” (Russia-China Declaration 1997).

Russian optimism faded relatively quickly. In its 2000 Foreign Policy Concept, Moscow complained that “plans related to establishing new, equitable and mutually advantageous partnership relations of Russia with the rest of the world… have not been justified” (Foreign Policy Concept 2000). It further emphasized the growing trend towards “establishment of a unipolar structure of the world with the economic and power domination of the United States”, whose “unilateral actions” can destabilize the international order. Russia claimed adherence to building a “democratic world order” – a multipolar system, that “reflects the diversity of the modern world with its great variety of interests” (Foreign Policy Concept 2000).

Responding to the US unilateral policies in the Middle East, Russia and China renewed their Joint Declaration on International Order in 2005. In this document, they stated that the process of building a multipolar international order “will be complicated and lengthy”. The Declaration rejected attempts to “dominate world affairs and divide countries into a leading camp and a subordinate camp”. Multipolarity was described as a process of “constantly seeking positions and decisions that are acceptable to all” (Russia-China Declaration 2005). 

In the Executive order on measures to implement foreign policy (2012) Russia proposed the same formula to take relations with the USA to the strategic level as it used in regard of China. The document prescribed Russian Foreign Ministry to “pursue the policy of ensuring a stable and predictable cooperation [with the US] based on the principles of equality, non-interference in internal affairs and respect for mutual interests” (Foreign Policy Executive Order 2012). Reaching equality with the United States was not an achievable task in the short-term, but describing prerequisites for stable and functional relations was instrumental for the future. The same document contained another wording to describe multipolarity – “polycentric system”.

“Telamons” also emerged in the latest Russian National Security Strategy (2015). The document reaffirmed that the shaping of a “new polycentric model of the world order is being accompanied by an increase in global and regional instability”, to which great powers responded by “assuming responsibility for matters in their regions” (National Security Strategy 2015). In Moscow’s view, Russia’s defense of its interests in Georgia and Ukraine crises was met with the “opposition from the United States and its allies, who are seeking to retain their dominance in world affairs”.

This line was continued in the new Russian Foreign Policy Concept (2016). Observing decentralization of global power, its shifting toward Asia-Pacific and erosion of dominance of the traditional western powers, the Concept stated – “diversity of the world and the existence of multiple development models have been clearer than ever”. Claiming that attempts of the West to contain alternative centers of power leads to a greater instability in international relations, Moscow proposed a “collective leadership from the major states that should be representative in geographic and civilization terms”. For the first time Russia acknowledged that the key trend in global processes become the “struggle for dominance in shaping principles of the future international system” (FPC 2016).

Russian thinking on the future multipolar world order is based on what Sergey Lavrov called “strategic patience”. It has a sense of inevitability – like it or not, sooner or later multipolarity will establish itself since the world system tends to reach power equilibrium. In this Russian thinking resembles laws of nature – gravity, inertia, friction, etc. This can be a reason behind Moscow still proclaimed strategic goal of “creating a common economic and human space, spanning from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean”, thus uniting efforts of “telamons” of the US, EU, Russia and China.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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