One week after a Russian vessel carrying eavesdropping equipment was identified 30 miles off the coast of Connecticut, local and federal officials say they were calm but cautious about the foreign presence.
The Viktor Leonov, a 90-foot Soviet-era ship designed to collect intelligence for the Russian Armed Forces, was detected by U.S. defense officials in international waters last Wednesday near the United States maritime boundary, which extends 13.8 miles off of the coastline. It left shortly after. Though the ship was detected during a time of heightened scrutiny on Russian-American relations, government officials urged citizens to refrain from panicking.
Russian ships have been known to patrol the east coast in years past, but they usually only venture as far north as Virginia, according to a press conference held by the director of the Department of Justice on Friday.
Department of Defense and Coast Guard officials told the News that the ship’s presence posed no immediate threat, and local officials said they did not take any actions in response.
But in a Feb 15. speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., expressed alarm at the presence of the “spy ship,” and referenced another recent incident in which a Russian aircraft flew within close range of a U.S. naval ship in the Black Sea as further evidence of a growing danger from Russia.
“[Russia is] doing it obviously with aggressive intent, to say the least,” Courtney said in his speech. “This is part of a pattern that is going on right now, not just off the east coast of the U.S., but also overseas.”
Neither Courtney nor a representative responded to a request for comment on his statement.
Some officials took note of the ship’s proximity to the Naval Submarine Base New London — one of the east coast’s primary naval bases and the self-described “Home of the Submarine Force” — which is based alongside the Thames River in Groton, Connecticut.
But Department of Defense spokeswoman Lt. Col. Valerie Henderson said the DOD recognizes a country’s right to transit international waters, and did not indicate that the ship’s presence ever posed an unusual risk.
“The ship did not enter U.S. territorial waters,” Henderson told the News in an email. “We respect freedom of navigation exercised by all nations beyond the territorial sea of a coastal state consistent with international law.”
The Coast Guard echoed that sentiment in a Tuesday statement to the News, saying the guard continues to monitor the ship’s location, as they do with all those that come within close distance of U.S. territory.
Allyson Conroy, an officer in the USCG Office of Public Affairs, said that the ship “has every right” to patrol the east coast. For context, she said, the U.S. Navy performs similar patrols in waters around the globe.
Officials in coastal towns said they were never prompted to take action in response to the ship.
“It was never a threat to New London and we were never notified by Homeland Security of a need to take any action,” said Michael Passero, mayor of New London, which closely borders the location of the nearby submarine base. “It is our understanding that this is not an uncommon occurrence.”
He added that the ship passed beyond Montauk Point on Long Island, New York, which is a significant distance from New London marine activity.
Dan Steward, first selectman of the coastal town of Waterford, said the town took no response to the vessel, which remained out of sight from the coast. He said the town’s only reaction was to remain aware of any events that could affect the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant in Waterbury.
“We do know that [the Russians] are inspecting us on a regular basis,” Steward said, in reference to the naval base. “It’s one of those things where our military tries to get as close as we can, and their military tries to get as close as they can.”
The ship became an issue of further national discourse when President Donald Trump said in a press conference last Thursday that “the best thing I could do is shoot that ship … right out of the water,” which he said would satisfy his critics. But he maintained that doing so would not be “great” as he would “love to get along with Russia.”
But Courtney, in a statement the day earlier, said the White House “needs to move past their seeming infatuation with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and treat him like the serious threat to global peace and security that he has been for the last five years.”
Naval Submarine Base New London was the nation’s first submarine base.