The generally pro-western Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev recently admitted that relations between Russia and the major western powers are not likely to improve any time soon. Due to the fact that Russians have become accustomed to a regular deluge of sanctions from the US and EU, the west cannot surprise Russia with further sanctions but it can reinforce the fact that Russian economic expansion and modernisation is far behind where it ought to be.
Most Russian political and economic analysts still have a tendency to compare and contrast Russian economic realities, achievements and challenges to those occurring in the west. In many ways, this itself is an outgrowth of the Russian cultural characteristic of fatalism. Because the west is not likely to partner with Russia in any meaningful way any time soon, it would be a far healthier approach for Russians to measure their successes and failures against those occurring in friendly or neutral nations.
Recent years have seen China-Russia relations reach new heights after both important neighbours began to consider the possibilities for expanded cooperation in the future. Within this framework, China views Russia as a vital Belt and Road partner. Specifically the Ice Silk Road (ISR) will see important cooperation between China and Russia as both countries stand to achieve important outcomes from ISR cooperation.
There is however a problem in contemporary China-Russia cooperation and because it is not a quantifiable problem, it is one that is hardly mentioned. Although relations between Moscow and Beijing are strong and productive, whilst China is clear about its Belt and Road aims in the context of a Russian partnership, the Russian political class can scarcely articulate what Russia ought to seek from a win-win Chinese partnership.
One of the problems is that the win-win mentality has not yet entered the Russian psyche. Centuries of warfare and a tumultuous 20th century has created an atmosphere in which the language of politics is the language of suspicion, caution, fear and depression. By contrast, the political language of China is one that is highly optimistic. When Xi Jinping first spoke about the concept of a Chinese Dream, this was not some unattainable ideal, but instead represented the spirit of optimism which can be motivated into concrete action steps through the study and application of Xi Jinping Thought. Today, the Chinese dream is one of working harmoniously to build a moderately prosperous society in all respects.
In Russia, no such dream exists. While China focuses on building a better future, the Russian political atmosphere is one that is increasingly content with a status quo that is not doing enough to enrich the lives of the people. While Japan’s economy continues to face stagnation problems, not only is Russia facing an economy whose growth figures are paltry compared to the most vibrant Asian economies, but there exists an unspoken mental stagnation within Russian political culture which makes it so that individuals proposing a reformist agenda tend either to be laughed at or ignored.
The difference in the Chinese and Russian political mentalities has roots which go back much further than contemporary political conditions. The history of China is one in which progress has endured both in times of crisis and in times of peace and prosperity. Confucius said, “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop”. This statement is itself an important metaphor for China’s ceaseless path towards greater development which in recent decades has been best represented by the spirit of reform and opening up.
By contrast, the Russian poet Pushkin’s Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish which is one of the classic stories known by all Russians, is ultimately a cautionary tale that has led many Russians to believe that greed and destruction are the penultimate zero-sum conclusions among those who strive to improve their lives.
As such, whilst the Chinese political mentality is one of consistency in terms of healthy goals, flexibility in terms of how to achieve these goals and one that is moderate rather than hysterical in its approach, Russian politics has learned from Russian culture to be complacent in the face of stagnation and fearful in the face of reform.
In this sense, Russian politicians should understand that win-win goals are not only possible but are desirable and attainable. The Russian tendency towards suspicion has made it so that win-win appears to be a remote and impossible concept. Until this mentality changes, Russia will miss out on many opportunities that could greatly enhance the lives of the people.