The Russian intelligence-gathering vessel that was operating erratically off the East Coast this week timed its latest foray into waters close to the United States with the Monday launch in Florida of a new commercial communications satellite by the private company SpaceX.
As The Washington Times and other news outlets first reported this week, the Coast Guard on Sunday issued a warning that the Russian spy ship Viktor Leonov was operating in an “unsafe” manner off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. The warning came in response to reports the ship was transiting in bad weather without running lights and making “erratic movements.”
The Coast Guard urged all ships near the Leonov to use extreme caution.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Charly Hengen told The Times that warnings were also sent to ships near Jacksonville, Florida, and Savannah, Georgia. The warnings were canceled for Charleston and Savannah but remain in effect for the Coast Guard’s Jacksonville sector, an indication the spy ship has moved farther south along the coast.
Adm. James G. Foggo III, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe and U.S. Naval Forces Africa, said the Russian vessel was operating some 200 miles off the coast, Military Times reported Wednesday.
A major objective for the spy ship was originally thought to be the Navy base at Kings Bay, Georgia, 38 miles north of Jacksonville. The base is home to Submarine Group 10, consisting of six nuclear ballistic missile submarines and two guided-missile submarines.
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But there are new indications that the spying target this time also included SpaceX’s space launch capability.
On Monday, the private space launch company founded by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk conducted the 13th successful launch of its Falcon 9 booster from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The launcher placed a communications satellite into orbit and then returned to Earth by landing on a barge in the Atlantic eight minutes later.
Analysts speculate that the ship may have been observing the launch to gather data that could benefit reusable Russian space launchers.
Steffan Watkins, an open source analyst who has tracked the Leonov for several years, said the ship deploys every year or two for intelligence gathering on the East Coast for about two months, usually stopping later in Jamaica, Cuba, or Trinidad and Tobago.
“The East Coast portion of the trip is part of a longer, six-to-nine-month tour that sometimes extends into the Mediterranean on the way back to their home base in Murmansk, Russia,” he said, adding that the ship specializes in signals intelligence and undersea surveillance.
Likely missions are “collecting signals intelligence on the surface, identifying changes year to year, and listening for acoustic signatures of submarines near American naval bases,” he said.
In past deployments to monitor U.S. vessels, the Leonov left waters adjacent to the United States and sailed to Cuba. A U.S. defense official said an American destroyer shadowed the Russian vessel during its transit from waters off the northern part of the United States south past Florida.
“It’s now heading for the Caribbean,” the official said.
Retired Rear Adm. Tom Jurkowsky said the transit by the Leonov is another indication of Russian saber-rattling toward the United States.
“This deployment by the Russian navy is a demonstration of its resurgence and growth,” Adm. Jurkowsky said. “The American public needs to be made aware that the Russian Navy is saying, ‘We are coming back. We are once again going to have a global presence and we will challenge you.’”
“There were reports of a vessel operating in an unsafe and unprofessional manner inconsistent with international norms and customs,” Petty Officer Hengen said. “We have a responsibility to keep mariners informed of all potential navigation risks.”
Navy Capt. Pamela Kunze, a spokeswoman for the North American Aerospace Command and Northern Command, said the Leonov’s most recent voyage was being closely tracked. The warnings were sent to all ships via email and broadcast on radio.
The Russian government-affiliated news website Russia Beyond reported the Leonov had “scared” the United States with its activities, while at the same time insisting the ship was conducting harmless underwater monitoring.
“It’s a Soviet-era ship from the ‘Project 864’, and was created not to collect data circling the U.S. or seek out any potential missile launches on the North American continent, but for underwater sonar surveillance,” the news site said.
“The ‘Viktor Leonov collects information on the so-called ‘noise-profiles.’ To put it simply, each and every military ship or submarine creates its own unique set of sounds that allows other military vessels identify them from afar,” Dmitry Safonov, a Russian military analyst, told Russia Beyond.
Mr. Safonov said the last time the Russians has collected surveillance data in the area was 2015. The Leonov, he said, was simply updating the information.
The Leonov has limited armaments, but is equipped with an AK-306M artillery system to defend the ship from air attacks at low altitude.
The visit of the Leonov comes amid heightened tensions with Russia.
Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian general staff, warned this week that the U.S. and NATO are pressuring Moscow and that a future crisis could lead to a war amid growing global instability.
“To a large extent, this is the result of attempts of certain countries to push their principles on sovereign states, including by use of force,” Gen. Gerasimov said, according to an account Wednesday in the military newspaper Red Star.
“Unprecedented political, economic and information pressure is being applied to countries trying to pursue an independent policy, among them Russia,” he said. “Under these circumstances, we cannot rule out a possibility of crises, which may run out of control and develop into a large-scale military conflict.”