The military tracked a Russian spy ship moving up the East Coast to within 30 miles of the U.S. Naval Submarine Base in Groton Wednesday and some political figures called the maneuver another aggressive action by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"We've been in touch with the Navy early this morning," U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, told The Courant. "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."
Two retired U.S. Naval submarine commanders downplayed the significance of the Russian presence, saying the ship presents little threat to U.S. security. Such Russian intelligence ships routinely patrol areas outside U.S. naval bases and track U.S. and allied forces' naval exercises.
The U.S. Coast Guard said it is tracking the ship's course, but would not disclose the 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.
"Residents of Connecticut should know that the arrival of the Victor Leonov, a Russian intelligence ship, 30 miles off of our coast yesterday does not present a direct threat to our physical safety," U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District said. He did say it was troubling given the on-going stories of Russian ties and interference with the Trump administration, among other events.
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.
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."
Old submarine hands, including retired senior commanders, said tended to brush aside political concern about the Russian ship. They said that such vessels are interested primarily in eavesdropping on electronic communications, but lack the technology to crack U.S. encryption.
"This for show," said retired Vice Admiral N. Ronald 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 our classified communications."
"The only thing they could get out of the radio circuitry is normal commercial traffic," said Thunman, who spent a career playing cold war, cat-and-mouse with the Russians 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 he finds reports of Russian aircraft buzzing U.S. ships elsewhere in the world more troubling than the presence of a Russians in international waters near New England.
Retired Commander 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."
The 300-foot, SSV-175 Viktor Leonov, is packed with electronic gear to monitor sonar and communications. It is armed with defense weaponry. For years, it has been patrolling near East Coast U.S. Naval installations and was spotted two years ago near the Navy's Trident ballistic missile submarine base in Kings Bay, GA.
Other sailors said they are aware of Russian of Soviet-era ships patrolling routes Groton submarines take to and from their base at the mouth of the Thames River. In the late 1970s, the U.S. Navy scrambled to recover gear that had some how been lost by a Groton-based boat, presumably before the Soviet's got it.
In the early 1980s, Thunman, as Deputy chief of Naval Operations, used a search for the sunken liner Titanic as cover for the U.S. Navy's efforts to find the wreckage of two of its submarines that sunk off the New England coast, Thresher and Scorpion. Thunman wanted to locate and photograph the boats without tipping the Soviets to the locations.
"It's been going on for years," said Jeff Walsh, a retired Navy senior chief, who served 22 years aboard attack submarines and works at Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics. Walsh said its amusing to people who understand the context. "It's going to keep going on until everyone wants to play nice."
He said he saw Facebook posts from neighbors wondering whether if they should take their children out of school. The situation made him think of the movie, "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming," he said.
Joe Quaratella Jr., owner of Nautilus Barber Shop, named the for first nuclear-powered submarine, near the base, said the Russians were a subject of discussion Wednesday.
"I had an officer from the base here this morning. We were talking about it," said Quaratella, who said he's been cutting sailor's hair for 50 year. "(The Russians) claim they're just trying to get signals. They're out stealing everything. They're doing this now because we have a new president. They're pushing him."
"This is nothing to worry about. ... They're listening and watching," he said.
Jim Ericson, who works at Electric Boat, was on the shore in Stonington borough on Wednesday at a spot where the town fought an invasion by the British in 1814. He said the older people he works with were amused by news of the ship but the younger workers were concerned.
"I kept telling them 'you know they've been out there for 60 years.' The British were out there in the 1800s."
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy agreed that the presence of the Russian ship isn't new given the state's role in the creation of submarines.
"I think that clearly they like to track submarines. We know that they do. This is not something that is brand new," Malloy said. "It's getting a lot of coverage because, again, I think of other Russian stories related to the Trump administration. They seek to understand how we have the best submarines in the world. And they're made here."
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."
Murphy said the recent actions show that Putin "clearly thinks the Trump administration has given him a permission slip to flex his muscles" and that the administration needs respond to these threats.
University of Connecticut Professor Frank Costigliola, a foreign policy expert, said the Russian ship would be off the Connecticut shore trying to collect information no matter who was in the White House.
"They spy on us; we spy on them," Costigliola said.
That transparency is not a bad thing, he said. "The only way a war could come is from a miscalculation," Costigliola said. "The more information we know about each other, the better."
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-Connecticut, said in a statement Tuesday morning. Blumenthal said he's remains in contact with the Department of Defense and the U.S. Coast Guard as he monitors the situation.
Blumenthal said the actions again show the need for an independent investigaiton into "possible collusion" between the Trump administration and Russian agents.
On Wednesday, Trump left a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before answering reporters questions about Russia.
Hartford Courant reporters Jesse Leavenworth and Dave Altimari contributed to this story.