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Coast Guard tracking Russian spy ship near U.S. Navy submarine base in Connecticut

By Nicholas Rondinone and Edmund H. Mahony • Feb 15, 2017 at 7:55 PM

GROTON, Conn. — Officials are tracking a Russian spy ship that cruised up the East Coast to within 30 miles of the U.S. Naval Submarine Base in Groton Wednesday in what some lawmakers called another aggressive action from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“A Russian spy ship patrolling 30 miles from the Groton sub base underscores that the threats posed by a resurgent Russia are real,” U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., said in a written statement.

Two retired U.S. Naval submarine commanders downplayed the significance of the Russian presence, saying the ship presents little threat to U.S. security.

The U.S. Coast Guard said it is tracking the ship’s course, but would not disclose the precise location.

“The U.S. Coast Guard is aware of a Russian Federation-flagged vessel transiting international waters off the East coast of the United States, as we are of all vessels approaching the U.S. The ship has not entered U.S. territorial waters, which extend 12 miles out to sea,” the Coast Guard said in a statement. “We respect freedom of navigation exercised by all nations beyond the territorial sea of a coastal state consistent with international law. The Coast Guard continues to coordinate with federal agency partners to monitor maritime contacts operating in the vicinity of U.S. shores.”

The ship began the trip north along the coast from Havana, where it was photographed and is expected to return.

Lawmakers, noting recent incidents including Russian planes “buzzing” a Navy ship in the Black Sea, point to this ship’s actions as yet another aggressive Russian action.

“They are doing this obviously with aggressive intent to say the least. … This is part of a pattern of what’s going on right now, not just off the East Coast of the U.S., but overseas,” Courtney, whose district includes Groton, said on the House Floor Wednesday morning.

“We’ve been in touch with the Navy early this morning,” Courtney told The Hartford Courant after a speech on the House floor. “They are watching it like a hawk. At this point there’s not a violation of international waters. Unless that happens you aren’t going to see any aggressive push-back, but it’s something that has us on high alert.”

In a community that has a long Navy tradition, Courtney said this action does not come as a surprise.

“The local community is loaded with incredible Navy tradition and experience and it’s not a great surprise that Putin’s resurgence in terms of naval activity is happening,” Courtney said. “If you’ve been down at the base in the last three or four years, it’s been a real common topic of conversation.”

Two retired senior submarine commanders said Wednesday that in their opinions, such a Russian spy ship has little ability to pry into U.S. secrets and there is no reason for alarm.

“This for show,” said retired Rear Adm. Ron Thunman, former deputy chief of naval operations for submarine warfare. “I mean, what could that thing do to us? It doesn’t have anything special that I know of today — of course, I’ve been out of it for a few years — but don’t know of any specialized equipment that they could use to intercept out classified communications.

“The only thing they could get out of the radio circuitry is normal commercial traffic,” said Thunman, who played cat-and-mouse games with the Russians throughout his career as a commander of submarines and submarine groups around the world. “Any sort of classified traffic that we have goes by classified circuits and they can’t get into it.”

Thunman said reports of Russian military aircraft buzzing U.S. Naval ships elsewhere in the world is far more troubling than the presence of a Russian ship in international waters near New England.

Retired Cmdr. David Candler, who spent his career serving on and commanding submarines based at the U.S. Naval Submarine base in Groton, agreed.

“I wouldn’t make a mountain out of a mole hill,” Candler said. “It’s a ship, but it’s not the Great White fleet. And it is not uncommon for all kinds of ships from all kinds of places to be all over the world. A military ship up here all by itself is kind of unusual. But these kinds of ships — and we do the same thing — go all over the place to stay reasonably accustomed to the waters.”

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who is a ranking member on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation, said: “While this is not wholly unprecedented, it’s part of a series of aggressive actions by Russia that threaten U.S. national security and the security of our allies.

“Just yesterday, news broke that Russia violated an Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Coupled with escalating fighting in eastern Ukraine and Russian jets buzzing a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Black Sea, Putin clearly thinks the Trump administration has given him a permission slip to flex his muscles,” Murphy said. “President Trump and his administration must end their silence and immediately respond to these threats to our national security.”

An official at the nearby Millstone nuclear power plant said there has been no instruction for the plant to take extra security measures.

“The presence of this spy ship has to be regarded very seriously because Russia is an increasingly aggressive adversary. It reflects a clear need to harden our defenses against electronic surveillance and cyber espionage,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in a statement. Blumenthal said he remains in contact with the Department of Defense and the U.S. Coast Guard as he monitors the situation.

“The return of a Russian vessel is particularly concerning in the context of escalating Russian aggression — within days of the Russian’s buzzing a U.S. Navy ship in the Black Sea, as well as deploying a cruise missile in violation of our arms control treaty — which only underscores the need for an independent investigation into possible collusion between the Trump administration and Russian agents,” Blumenthal said in the statement.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said that President Donald Trump has failed to show leadership by not condemning Putin’s action.

“News that a Russian spy ship is sailing along the coast of Connecticut to monitor our nation’s military fleet is alarming,” DeLauro said in a statement. “While Russia continues to flex its muscle by deploying a cruise missile that violates a long-standing arms treaty, buzzing U.S. naval ships in international waters, and floating an intelligence ship along our coast, President Trump has failed to show leadership and condemn Vladimir Putin and his Russian regime. All of these events raise the question of why Russia has decided to make these aggressive moves now. The events of the last 48 hours highlight our nation’s severe national security crisis that must be dealt with immediately.”

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(Hartford Courant reporter Dave Altimari contributed to this report.)

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©2017 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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