Russian spy ship returns off U.S. coast, near sub base

Russian Vishnya (also known as Meridian) class warship CCB-175 Viktor Leonov, arrives at Havana’s harbor in a Feb. 27, 2014 file photo. The Vishnya class ships are used for gathering intelligence.

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A Russian spy ship has reappeared off the U.S. eastern seaboard, sailing just 20 miles south of the U.S. Navy submarine base at King’s Bay, Georgia, and heading north. 

CBS News 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.

They Leonov made a similar journey along the East Coast in February, sailing close to a U.S. naval base in Virginia and Naval Submarine Base New London in Connecticut, which the Navy describes as the “Home of the Submarine Force.”

During its February patrol of the East Coast, the closest the ship came to land was 17 miles, which is still in international waters, Martin reported.

Its voyages are the latest in an alarming string of incidents involving the Russian military. In February, a group of Russian jets buzzed a U.S. destroyer in the Black Sea and the U.S. accused Russia of secretly deploying cruise missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead in violation of a major arms-control treaty.

As the Leonov patrolled in February, CBS News chief White House correspondent Major Garrett asked President Trump about the incidents during a nationally broadcast press conference.

Mr. Trump said 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,” Mr. 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.

At about 300 feet long, the Viktor Leonov was built for spying. The ship’s sophisticated surveillance equipment can intercept radar, radio and other electronic signals.  

Michael Petersen, director of the Russian Maritime Studies Institute, doubts the ship can pick up a lot of sensitive information.

“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,” Petersen said on “CBS This Morning.”

Russian ships routinely conduct spy missions near U.S. waters. 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.”