A Russian Navy intelligence collection ship, the Viktor Leonov, is reportedly “loitering” off the US coast near Montauk Point, Long Island. That just happens to be 30 miles from Naval Submarine Base New London, the home port of the US Navy’s attack submarine force near Groton, Connecticut. This is the closest, and the farthest north, that the Russian intelligence ship has ever traveled along the United States’ eastern seaboard, according to a statement by a US Navy spokesperson to Fox News.
The Leonov, built in 1988, carries both signals-collection and sonar sensors—including hull-mounted arrays and a “dipping” sonar to get below thermal layers in ocean waters. So its proximity to Groton is likely an effort to collect data on the comings and goings of submarines home-ported there and also to intercept communications to submarines as they enter and leave port to better identify them electronically. The ship’s large dome shields a satellite communications antenna for transmitting signals intelligence back to Russia.
The close proximity of the Leonov to Groton (still outside the 12-mile limit of US territorial waters) comes on the heels of Russia’s deployment of ground-based cruise missiles within Russia—a violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed in 1987. And last Friday, four Russian military aircraft (three Sukhoi Su-24 attack aircraft and an Ilyushin Il-38 surveillance aircraft) flew within 200 yards of USS Porter (DDG-78) while the ship was in international waters in the Black Sea. The aircraft did not respond to radio warnings from the Porter; a spokesperson for the US European Command called the flybys “unsafe and unprofessional.” The Porter was in the Black Sea after completing a joint international exercise led by the Romanian Navy, USNI News reported.
The Russian Ministry of Defense denied that pilots acted unsafely. “If the US destroyer, as the Pentagon official claims, conducted a ‘regular’ patrol mission in the vicinity of Russia, tens of thousands of miles away from their own shores,” said Ministry of Defense spokesperson Major General Igor Konashenkov in an official statement, “it is strange to be surprised about the no less regular flights of our aircraft over the Black Sea.”
Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, commented on Twitter on this latest in a rapid series of Russian military developments, suggesting that the Leonov was part of a test of the new administration:
Two years ago, the Leonov lingered in a similar fashion off of Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, the home of the Atlantic Ohio-class nuclear missile sub fleet. US Navy ships have conducted “freedom of navigation” operations in the Black Sea (the southern home of the Russian fleet) in addition to exercises with former Soviet-allied states such as Romania in the past but haven’t hugged the coast near Crimea in this fashion—though the Navy has undertaken similar operations in close proximity to Chinese-claimed islands in the South China Sea, and it has conducted underwater surveys there.