NATO’s political intent in the North Atlantic was clearly spelled out in the communiqué of the alliance’s July 2016 summit in Warsaw: “In the North Atlantic, as elsewhere, the Alliance will be ready to deter and defend against any potential threats, including against sea lines of communication and maritime approaches of NATO territory. We will further strengthen our maritime posture and comprehensive situational awareness.”
Now is the time to translate that intent into tangible action. The North Atlantic Ocean, a top strategic priority for NATO and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, has not been a major strategic concern for the alliance in the past two decades. But today, as Russia builds up its maritime capabilities and increases its naval activities in the area, there are reasons for NATO allies to be concerned. The alliance should take concrete and visible steps to enhance its focus on, and presence in, the North Atlantic.
For the Russians, the North Atlantic hasn’t gone off the radar screen. Quite the contrary. Russia’s development of high-end maritime capabilities and its increased presence in the North Atlantic are reflections of the vital importance of this region for the Kremlin.
Russia’s 2014 military doctrine and 2015 maritime doctrine identified the North Atlantic and Arctic regions as being of prime interest, for two military-strategic reasons. The first is to protect Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces in the Barents Sea. To do so, Moscow is keen to exert control over and deny access to its Northern flank—from both the North Atlantic and the North Pacific into the Arctic.
The second reason is to project power and fulfill Moscow’s global ambitions. The North Atlantic is Russia’s main maritime gateway to the rest of the world—not least to the Mediterranean Sea, where in November 2016 Russia demonstratively sailed its aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, which had come all the way from Severomorsk in the Arctic.
Acknowledging the importance Russia attaches to the North Atlantic, and in light of the growing Russian naval posture in the region, the NATO allies are paying greater attention to current and potential future security developments in this maritime space. In recent years, Russia has demonstrated that it has the maritime capabilities—nuclear, conventional, and nonconventional, including hybrid—to probe the allies and even challenge NATO’s control of the high seas in the North Atlantic. Russian submarines operating close to the UK’s submarine base in Scotland in early 2015 and skirting close to vital undersea communications cables are just some examples of Russia’s more assertive moves in this space.
Looking ahead, Russia may well be in a position where it could, in times of crisis, disrupt critical allied sea lines of communication in the North Atlantic that are needed to deploy and reinforce U.S. forces and supplies in Europe. The credibility of NATO’s collective defense and Europe’s overall stability are at stake.
With this in mind, there are three important steps that the alliance could take to start restoring NATO’s presence in the North Atlantic.
To begin with, NATO should conduct an ongoing political-military assessment of the maritime security dynamics in the North Atlantic. This assessment could be an opportunity to bring NATO partner countries Finland and Sweden, as well as the EU, to the table. A more inclusive discussion would help all stakeholders gain better maritime situational awareness in an area of common concern.
Second, allies should ensure that NATO’s deterrence and defense posture, including its maritime posture, is adequately strengthened in the North, alongside the East and the South. In recent years, the alliance has largely focused on the Baltic and Black Sea regions, as well as on the Mediterranean. The North Atlantic—the backbone of transatlantic relations—equally deserves to be in the limelight. At the same time as NATO seeks to strengthen its maritime deterrence and defense posture, the alliance could extend its current dialogue with Russia on transparency and risk reduction in the maritime domain to the North Atlantic.
Third, NATO should recognize more visibly that its effectiveness as an alliance depends as much on maritime power as on land and air power. Over the years, NATO’s maritime missions have received insufficient attention, and its maritime capabilities have shrunk. It is time to reverse this trend. Aside from updating the alliance’s maritime strategy (the latest version of which dates from 2011) and beefing up NATO’s Maritime Command in Northwood, UK, as several experts have recently argued, the alliance needs a group of allies to lead a maritime initiative and a high-level champion of maritime issues embedded in NATO’s headquarters in Brussels. Without a maritime push at a high political level, there is less chance for a discussion on maritime questions to go beyond the immediate operational approach that the alliance has taken in recent years.
All of the above is not to say that NATO is unprepared for potential military challenges at sea in the North Atlantic. Much work is already under way when it comes to strengthening NATO’s deterrence and defense posture. Importantly, several NATO allies have the required capabilities, which could be used today, to deal with a resurgent Russia in this space. NATO allied military exercises in the area are another demonstration of NATO’s preparedness. Trident Juncture, NATO’s largest military exercise, which will be held in Norway in 2018, is a welcome opportunity to get all allied militaries to look North.
Threats in the North may be considered less imminent, but some are critical for the alliance and require NATO and allies to act now. In the words of former NATO supreme allied commander for Europe U.S. General Philip Breedlove, “NATO must put the North Atlantic back on its agenda.”
Claire Craanen works in the Strategic Analysis Capability at NATO Headquarters and is the secretary general of Women in International Security (WIIS) Brussels. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policies or positions of NATO.