Russia Announces Launch of Arctic Imaging Satellite for Northern Sea Route in Q3 2021, Weeks After Similar Announcement by China

On Decem­ber 24, Russia’s TASS News Agency report­ed that the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment has decid­ed to launch the Obzor‑R radar satel­lite in the third quar­ter of 2021.  Accord­ing to TASS, the satel­lite is to sup­port nav­i­ga­tion, mon­i­tor­ing, emer­gency response, min­er­al explo­ration and envi­ron­men­tal man­age­ment along Russia’s North­ern Sea Route (NSR) – a path­way through the Russ­ian arc­tic that Moscow hopes do devel­op into a trans­ship­ment route rival­ing exist­ing West­ern-dom­i­nat­ed routes such as the Suez and Pana­ma Canals.  Amidst efforts to devel­op the NSR for trans­ship­ment pur­pos­es, how­ev­er, Moscow has also insert­ed the mil­i­tary into the project via an increased naval pres­ence along the pas­sage­way, explained inter­mit­tent­ly as designed to increase the Kremlin’s research, mon­i­tor­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions capa­bil­i­ty in the region. 

Notably, just weeks pri­or, Chi­na also announced plans to launch a new satel­lite by 2022 to improve the nav­i­ga­bil­i­ty of the NSR for Chi­nese ves­sels trav­el­ing the route.  The Chi­nese satel­lite, under devel­op­ment by China’s Acad­e­my of Space and Tech­nol­o­gy and Sun Yat-sen Uni­ver­si­ty, will report­ed­ly allow the Chi­nese to mon­i­tor weath­er and envi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions in the area.  It remains unclear what the Russ­ian role (if any) will be in this project.  There appears to be very lit­tle main­stream Russ­ian cov­er­age about the planned Chi­nese satel­lite launch.

The Russ­ian satel­lite, man­u­fac­tured by the Russ­ian Progress Rock­et and Space Cen­ter (Sama­ra), is one of five planned satel­lite launch­es between 2021–2022 intend­ed to boost Moscow’s nav­i­ga­tion capa­bil­i­ty in the Arc­tic.  Rus­sia aims to increase the traf­fic along the NSR by 90 mil­lion tons by 2030, an objec­tive sup­port­ed by a com­pre­hen­sive infra­struc­ture devel­op­ment plan issued by the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment.  Bei­jing is also piv­ot­ing to become a dom­i­nant play­er in Arc­tic trans­ship­ment activ­i­ties, as evi­denced by agree­ments signed between Russ­ian and Chi­nese com­pa­nies to enhance LNG trade logis­tics via the Arc­tic and China’s emerg­ing inter­ests in Arc­tic infra­struc­ture invest­ments.

Although Moscow has gen­er­al­ly been open to Chi­nese par­tic­i­pa­tion in the devel­op­ment of the NSR (espe­cial­ly as it relates to offer­ing a mar­ket for Arc­tic ener­gy, but also as a financier for Russ­ian projects), there is dis­agree­ment about whether the two coun­tries’ Arc­tic ambi­tions will make it a cor­ner­stone of an emerg­ing geopo­lit­i­cal alliance or the source of near-term bilat­er­al ten­sion.