A new arena of competition is opening between Russia and NATO in the North Atlantic. In the Baltic, Black Sea, Ukraine, and even the Middle East, Russia’s geopolitical ambitions have upended all semblance of post-Cold War rapprochement between the two historic adversaries. NATO has built up its military presence along its Eastern flank and revamped its deterrent posture in response. But in its rush to fortify these fronts, it risks overlooking a newly vulnerable Cold War chokepoint known as the GIUK gap.
The GIUK gap denotes the maritime line between Greenland, Iceland, and the United Kingdom that served as a defensive perimeter for NATO during the Cold War. In the event of a war in Europe, the Soviet Union would have to breach the line to cut the United States and Canada off from their European allies. In short, it was the maritime analog to the Fulda Gap.
During the Cold War, the NATO alliance kept a tight surveillance net on the North Atlantic through sea- and land-based aviation, a sustained submarine presence, and a complex web of sound surveillance systems. Since the Soviet threat faded into history, NATO’s focus and presence in the North Atlantic has slipped, eclipsed by complex operations from the Balkans to Libya to Afghanistan. But it cannot ignore the gap’s reemerging importance. And as Russia ramps up its military presence in the North Atlantic, NATO’s presence has atrophied.
The GIUK gap is still the only point through which Russia can project power into the Atlantic Ocean and Europe’s littoral beyond the bottlenecked Baltic and Black Seas. It remains the gateway to the Atlantic Ocean for Russia’s largest and most strategically important fleet, the Northern Fleet.
NATO does not need to think of the GIUK gap in terms of Cold War-style conventional warfare. However, it must acknowledge that the North Atlantic could be the next focal point for Russian military aggression.
Following Russia’s pattern of actions in recent years, this
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