WNPR

Russian Intelligence Ship Spotted Off Connecticut Coast

Feb 15, 2017

A Russian intelligence gathering vessel, the Viktor Leonov, has been spotted 30 miles off the Connecticut shoreline. The ship is still in international waters, but is in close proximity to the naval submarine base in Groton. 

The Leonov is equipped with communications and signal intelligence gathering equipment.

Rep. Joe Courtney, whose district includes the sub base, spoke from the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives about the situation.

"They are doing it, obviously, with aggressive intent, to say the least," he told the House.

Courtney said it is part of a pattern of increasingly bold actions by the Russian military in recent days, citing an incident earlier this month when Russian aircraft buzzed a U.S. Navy ship in the Black Sea.

Senator Richard Blumenthal said in a statement that the latest move "reflects a clear need to harden our defenses against electronic surveillance and cyber espionage."

Courtney pointed to the record of Russia's president. 

"Vladimir Putin, during the five years that he has been in power, has taken a posture that is completely destabilizing to any sort of global system of peace and security," he said. "We need to disavow ourselves of any naive assumptions that somehow the Putin government is something that has regard for international norms, or international law."

Courtney told WNPR he's been in contact this morning with leadership at the sub base.

"We've got incredibly experienced, professional, competent people there, who have seen this behavior in years gone by," he said. "They have a way to be vigilant, and to monitor the Leonov, to make sure international norms are followed."

Watch Courtney's speech to the House of Representatives:

Russia is also deploying cruise missiles near its western border, in violation of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in 1987.

It's not unusual for Russian ships to be spotted near King's Bay, Georgia, the site of another east coast sub base, and some seasoned Russia-watchers say there's no cause for undue alarm in the Connecticut sighting.

"Most people don't pay attention to these things, but because of what has happened in the United States people are focused on this," said Thomas Graham, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. "So they're seeing things for the first time in their memory, yet these things go on, almost on a routine basis."

Yes Courtney said he believes the Connecticut visit appears to be an escalation.

"It has been a number of years since they have gone this far north, and so I do think it's something different, in terms of Putin's behavior," he said.

Courtney said he finds the Trump administration's posture towards Russia, "almost incoherent."

Senator Chris Murphy, ranking member of the Europe and regional security subcommittee, said "Putin clearly thinks the Trump administration has given him a permission slip to flex his muscles."

Courtney had this warning for the President in his dealings with Russia. "Every intelligence estimate, every military analysis is screaming out a message that this is a new phenomenon that's going on right now, and the president really needs to get with the program in terms of understanding that he's not dealing with a benign government."

Yale's Graham said news of contact between the Trump campaign and the Russian government is not in itself an unusual event. "You would want the campaigns to be talking to counterparts in various countries - that's part of the job," he told WNPR. But he said there are legitimate questions over Russian hacking during the election, and whether people associated with the Trump campaign were aware of it.

The result, he said is comfort for Vladimir Putin. "I think he looks at what's happening in the United States right now, and he couldn't have hoped for a better outcome," said Graham. "We're questioning the legitimacy of our institutions, the president raising questions about the judiciary and so forth. It tarnishes the image of the United States."

Tucker Ives contributed to this report.