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.