Russian spy ship sailing off Florida’s shore draws close watch from US
By LISA J. HURIASH | South Florida Sun Sentinel | Published: December 18, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — A Russian surveillance ship has been spotted off the coast of Florida, prompting the U.S. Navy and other officials to keep it under close watch amid security concerns.
South Florida’s congressional leaders see the presence of the Viktor Leonov, a Russian reconnaissance and communications ship, as a display of military power off the state’s shores.
“Russia continues to attempt to exert influence in the Western Hemisphere and has increased naval activity and intelligence collection efforts using platforms like the Viktor Leonov," U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said. "The U.S. Navy and intelligence community will closely monitor all Russian activity near our shores.”
Viktor Leonov also has been spotted sailing off the coast of South Carolina in recent days. The ship’s actions were deemed unsafe because it wasn’t running lights in low-visibility weather and wasn’t replying to hails from commercial vessels that were trying to help prevent any collision, according to CNN, which cited information from two U.S. officials.
The Viktor Leonov has been seen before off the United States coast, and it also routinely operates in the Caribbean, including Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago. But there is something unexpected in the Viktor Leonov’s case this time, one expert said. “What’s unusual about this is it’s not putting on their lights when they ought to, and not communicating with nearby vessels about their location," said Benjamin Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a foreign policy organization. “The Russian ship seems to be endangering other ships in the area and maybe even themselves. That’s the takeaway point.”
Nearly five years ago, the Viktor Leonov also was in Havana just before the start of discussions between U.S. and Cuban officials on the reopening of diplomatic relations, according to The Associated Press. The ship returned again in March 2018.
Friedman said 13.8 miles off the coast is considered international waters. “It doesn’t mean the Russians are invading or attacking us. It’s a reminder the Russians are a major power, and they have a military that conducts global military operations."
The U.S. Navy tweeted Tuesday that the North American Aerospace Defense Command and United States Northern Command were closely tracking the Viktor Leonov and other ships of interest. They routinely conduct air and naval operations to ensure the defense of the United States and Canada.
The U.S. Navy would not comment beyond the tweets Tuesday. The U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Defense did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
The ship was spotted months after Congress in March passed a $1.3 trillion spending bill that prioritizes the need to confront Russian aggression.
Among the points: One section bars money from funding a program that Russia participates in by stating money should “not be used for officials of the central government of Russia.” And in a five-page section titled “Countering Russian Influence and Aggression,” $250 million is approved to go to the Countering Russian Influence Fund, a program that works for boost the “capacity of law enforcement and security forces in country in Europe and Eurasia” and looks to deepen ties to anti-Russia allies.
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