The last time the Russian Cold War-era spy ship Viktor Leonov (SSV-175), was spotted off the US East Coast on what was its first Atlantic mission since President Trump was elected, was exactly one month ago, when it was located just 30 miles from Groton, Connecticut. Grotton is also known as the "home of the submarine force" and is the primary east coast submarine base for the US.
In the days that followed, the Leonov quietly disappeared, however it now appears that the Leonov is now back and once again appears to be expressing an interest in yet another US sub base. According to CBS, the Leonov is now sailing just 20 miles south of the U.S. Navy submarine base at King’s Bay, Georgia, and heading north. CBS' correspondent David Martin reports the Viktor Leonov, known as an AGI (Auxiliary, General Intelligence) trawler, has a port call scheduled in Jamaica for mid-April, and the assumption among U.S. officials is that it will make one more run up and down the east coast before heading to Jamaica.
Martin adds that during its February patrol of the East Coast, the closest the ship came to the US was 17 miles, which is still in international waters, Martin reported. One month ago, as the Leonov patrolled, CBS' White House correspondent Major Garrett asked President Trump about the proximity of the Leonov and other "close encounters" between US and Russian forces in recent months, during a nationally broadcast press conference. Trump responded that they were “not good,” but that he did not think the provocations were a test from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I think Putin probably assumes that he can’t make a deal with me anymore because politically it would be unpopular for a politician to make a deal - I can’t believe I’m saying I’m a politician but I guess that’s what I am now - because, look, it would be much easier for me to be tough on Russia but then we’re not going to make a deal,” Trump said. During the same press conference, the president said, “The greatest thing I could do is shoot that ship that’s 30 miles offshore right out of the water,” but he declined to discuss any real response to the provocations.
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The 300 foot long ship’s sophisticated surveillance equipment can intercept radar, radio and other electronic signals, however according to Michael Petersen, director of the Russian Maritime Studies Institute, the ship will probably be unable to pick up much sensitive information.
Speaking on CBS This Morning, Petersen then pointed out the obvious: “When we know that that vessel is in range, it’s highly unlikely that we are using radio or radar waves or any other kind of electronic emissions that this vessel is capable of picking up."
To be sure, Russian ships routinely conduct spy missions near U.S. waters and the inverse is certainly true as well. The Viktor Leonov has traveled up the Atlantic Coast before, in 2014 and 2015. It was also docked in Havana in 2015 when the first high-level U.S. delegation made its historic trip to Cuba. “We know they’re doing it,” Petersen said. “They know that we know that they’re doing it.”
In other words, the ship is close to the US not to actually spy, but to simply, so to speak, "test the waters." So far, there have been no provocations on either side.