WHAT THE PUCK? Putin may play in historic hockey game at Barneo in April – could he trigger yet another nasty political faceoff in Svalbard?

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“Putin makes stopover in Svalbard while traveling to play hockey at the North Pole.” It’s a helleva potential headline and news story if it comes to pass this April, although as of now there’s no guarantee he’ll play – or the match will even occur, given the chaos of recent years – or that he’ll take the conventional flight route through Svalbard if he does.

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The Barneo ice camp, established each spring on an ice flow somewhere above 89 degrees latitude North, is the base for expeditions attempting to reach the North Pole and a variety of other political/scientific/cultural activities. Photo by the Russian Geographical Society.

Vladimir Putin, having just taken actions as Russia’s president to ensure he can rule over the country for life if he wants, is among the invitees for what will be the world’s northernmost hockey game April 20 at the Barneo ice camp somewhere north of 89 degrees latitude north, according to Russia’s Yamal Region TV. The match, designed to call attention to climate change and Arctic issues related to it, would be played by current/former ice hockey stars, plus notable politicians, musicians and actors.

“We all understand that hockey is an ice game, the North Pole is a place that will attract attention,” René Fazel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation and match judge if the event takes place, told the television station. “Sport and ecology will unite and save the world. We understand that today famous people should unite around an idea – and this one idea: to save the world.”

Fazel is described as a close friend of Putin, who “is a long-time passionate ice hockey fan and has participated in several exhibition games, including the so-called Nigh Hockey League,” according to media reports.

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Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmity Rogozin poses for a photo outside Svalbard Airport in April of 2015, setting off a series of squabbles between Russia and Norway about transit to and from the Barneo ice camp. Photo by Dmitry Rogozin / Twitter

The planned match at Barneo was announced by former Russian hockey star Vyacheslav Fetisov, another close associate of Putin’s who is the country’s UN Goodwill Ambassador for the Arctic and Antarctic. The match was originally scheduled last year, but called off when political and weather complications resulted in the first-ever cancellation of the entire North Pole expedition season via the Barneo camp.

But the foremost reason for the cancellation – the refusal of Russian authorities to allow Ukrainian pilots to fly the chartered expedition planes to the camp, resulting in delays that lasted until weather and ice conditions became unstable – was just the most recent in a string of Barneo-related events during the past several years that have strained Norwegian/Russian relations and resulted in travel restrictions that have proved costly for many aspiring to reach the North Pole.

The decades-long posturing for presence/control at the North Pole escalated in the spring 2015 when then-Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin made a stopover in Svalbard on his way to Barneo, despite being banned from mainland Norway due to his role in the Ukraine crisis, posting taunting messages and photos on social media such as declaring the Arctic “Russia’s Mecca.” That prompted Norway to alter its law on flights to/from Svalbard to require the names of all passengers to be submitted 48 hours in advance – causing immense chaos for Barneo expedition flights whose schedules often change hourly due to the extreme weather conditions – and allowing the ban on “undesirables” on the mainland to extend to Svalbard.

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Chechen paratroopers make a stopover at Svalbard Airport in spring of 2016, in possible violation of the Svalbard Treaty. Photo posted on Twitter.

That didn’t thwart Russia from more provocation, as Chechen paratroopers made a stopover at Svalbard Airport following military training at Barneo in the spring of 2016. While some officials stated the visit violated the Svalbard Treaty’s ban on war-related activities, Norway’s government chose not to officially object to the stopover.

Norway, meanwhile, was accused of its own provocation by Russia because of the new flight restrictions, which resulted in a greatly abbreviated season and mass cancellation of expeditions in 2016, and has contributed to reduced activity in subsequent years. Russia threatened to relocate the camp’s logistics base from Longyearbyen to Franz Josef Land – potentially threatening about 10 percent of the total traffic at Svalbard Airport, due to high cargo/passenger volume involved in Barneo flights – although limited infrastructure on the Russian archipelago and selling the camp’s operations to a private entity in 2018 caused the possibility to fizzle out.

But with Russia continuing its aggressive push for control of the Arctic, including full-scale simulated military invasions of Svalbard, what are the prospects of Putin by at least suggesting (or attempting an impromptu) a stop in Svalbard?

Realistically speaking, pretty low. Putin would almost certainly take the more direct route to Barneo via Russia used by military troops and certain political/religious leaders for their annual training and ceremonial activities. Also, Norway’s Foreign Ministry would have to approve a scheduled visit, which almost certainly would involve a multitude of factors given the years-long gap between heads of the two countries visiting their neighbors – and there’s nothing like that on the agenda at the moment.

“We have no information that indicates that president Putin is planning to visit Norway in near future,” Ane Haavardsdatter Lunde, deputy director of communications for the foreign ministry, wrote in an e-mail interview when asked about the implications of an authorized/unauthorized visit.

“All flight operations to and from Svalbard are subject to permission from the Norwegian Aviation Authorities,” she added, referring to the stricter rules. “For some years now, Svalbard Lufthavn Longyear has been used for transit purposes of goods and passengers to the Barneo base near the North Pole. Both the flight operator and Norwegian authorities recognize the need to focus on flight security, as these operations are subject to unpredictable ice and weather conditions.”

Legal stuff aside, if Putin does go rogue it’ll be the equivalent of an enforcer starting a bench-clearing brawl during a normal match – it’ll be what dominates the headlines instead of the charity/awareness storyline and sour a whole bunch of friends and Influencers agains him, if such things matter.

Finally, after the cancellation of last year’s season there’s both a backlog of people from last year hoping to reach Barneo (and the North Pole) again this year and pressure on everyone involved in the camp (including Russian paratroopers and others who set it up) to avoid the chaos of recent years if nature allows. So deliberate provocation could prove somewhat costly financially and even more costly in terms of that all-important Arctic prestige.