Flashpoints

Russian spy ship lurking off US coast conducting ‘unsafe operation’

U.S. Northern Command and the Coast Guard have been tracking a Russian spy ship equipped with electronic surveillance gear that has been lurking off the East Coast of the United States.

On Monday, the Coast Guard sent out a Maritime Safety Information Bulletin warning boaters of reports of the Viktor Leonov operating in an “unsafe manner” off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.

On Tuesday, the Coast Guard said the Russian ship was operating in USCG’s Jacksonville, Florida, area of responsibility, which encompasses roughly 40,000 square miles of ocean and nearly 190 miles of coast from Kings Bay, Georgia, to Port Malabar, Florida.

“This unsafe operation includes not energizing running lights while in reduced visibility conditions, not responding to hails by commercial vessels attempting to coordinate safe passage and other erratic movements,” the Coast Guard posted on its bulletin.

“Vessels transiting these waters should maintain a sharp lookout and use extreme caution when navigating in proximity to this vessel. Mariners should make reports of any unsafe situations to the United States Coast Guard,” the Coast Guard said in its safety message.

Adm. James Foggo III, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and U.S. Naval Forces Africa, told reporters Dec. 18 that the Russian spy ship was operating a “couple hundred” miles off the East Coast.

North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command told Military Times that they were tracking the Russian ship.

“We are aware of Russia’s naval activities, including the deployment of these intelligence collection ships in the region," Maj. Mark R. Lazane, a spokesman with NORTHCOM, told Military Times in an emailed statement.

"While we won’t discuss specific measures being taken, NORAD and NORTHCOM routinely conduct air and maritime operations to ensure the defense of the United States and Canada,” Lazane said.

It’s not the first time the Viktor Leonov has conducted intelligence operations off the East Coast off the U.S.

In 2017, the Pentagon announced the Leonov was being trailed by a Coast Guard vessel but was operating in international waters.

“This is not something where we have seen where they have entered territorial waters, and as such it is lawful and very similar to operations we do,” then-Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said about the Leonov in February 2017.

The Russian surveillance ship has been spotted conducting operations on the U.S. submarine base in New London, Connecticut, and other Navy bases in Florida and Virginia as far back as 1998, the Pentagon previously said.

“They routinely deploy intelligence vessels worldwide to monitor the activities and particularly naval activities of other nations, but then again conducted lawfully in international waters and not unlike operations we conduct ourselves,” Davis said in 2017 about the Leonov operating near the East Coast of the U.S.

Foggo said that the Coast Guard reported that the Russian ship was not responding to signals or “bridge to bridge” radio communications and was running without lights on at sea.

Those actions, Foggo said Wednesday, are risky.

“NORAD and USNORTHCOM closely track vessels of interest, including foreign military naval vessels such as the Russian ship VICTOR LEONOV, in our area of responsibility,” Lazane said.

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