Russian spy ship patrols near U.S. Navy submarine base in Connecticut: lawmakers

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The Viktor Leonov CCB-175, a Russian Navy intelligence warship, is docked to a pier in Old Havana Jan. 20, 2015 in Havana, Cuba. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — A day after Moscow deployed a cruise missile in an apparent treaty violation, lawmakers in Connecticut are calling attention to a Russian spy ship patrolling off the coast of their state — not necessarily an unprecedented move but one that may muddle already complicated relations between the U.S. and the Kremlin.

The SSV-175 Viktor Leonov on Wednesday was tracked to within 30 miles of the U.S. Naval Submarine Base in Groton, Conn., the Navy’s primary submarine base on the East Coast.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney said the ship is in international waters and thus has not violated any laws, but regardless is “a very real threat posed by a resurgent Russia.”

“This unacceptable, aggressive action, combined with the buzzing of US Navy ships in the Black Sea yesterday, is a clear indication that Russia is testing the resolve of the new Administration,” Courtney said. “I have total confidence in our Navy’s vigilant, responsible readiness, but the White House needs to move past their infatuation with Putin and treat him like the serious threat to global peace that he has been for the last five years.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal echoed those sentiments.

“Presence of Russian spy ship has to be regarded very seriously b/c Russia is an increasingly aggressive adversary,” he said in a series of tweets.

“It reflects a clear need to harden our defenses against electronic surveillance&cyber (sic) espionage.”

The Russian vessel is outfitted with a variety of high-tech spying equipment and is designed to intercept signals intelligence. Fox News first reported on Tuesday the ship’s location in international waters off the coast of Delaware.

The Hartford Courant reports the ship previously had been photographed along the coast of Havana and is expected to return there.

A U.S. defense official told CNN this is not the first time the ship has been deployed off the coast of the U.S.

Similar patrols were carried out by the Leonov in 2014 off the coast of Florida and in 2015, but such missions were much more common during the Cold War, the official said.

The traditional U.S. adversary has also carried out flights near a U.S. Navy warship, concerning U.S. officials. The administration has not officially drawn any links between the events.

Did Russia violate a decades-old treaty?

A senior military official told CNN Tuesday that Moscow deployed a cruise missile, which is an apparent violation of a 1987 nuclear forces treaty. The move is a challenging provocation for President Donald Trump, who has clearly pushed for a better relationship with the Russians, traditionally a U.S. adversary.

Tuesday’s ground-launched cruise missile seems to run counter to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the senior military official said. The New York Times first reported its deployment.

While declining to speak on intelligence matters, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department did draw attention to Russian violations of the treaty.

“The Russian Federation remains in violation of its INF Treaty obligations not to possess, produce or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500 to 5,500 kilometers, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles,” acting spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement issued Tuesday.

Russia is believed to have tested one such missile in 2014.

“We have made very clear our concerns about Russia’s violation, the risks it poses to European and Asian security, and our strong interest in returning Russia to compliance with the treaty,” Toner added.

Recent string of provocations

Last week, a U.S. Navy warship in the Black Sea had three encounters with Russian aircraft that were deemed to be unsafe and unprofessional because of how close the Russian planes flew to the U.S., according to a senior defense official.

The USS Porter, a destroyer, was operating in the Black Sea on Feb. 10 when it was approached three times by Russian aircraft, including one IL-38 and two SU-24s. The Navy calculated the Russian planes may be have flown as close as 1,000 yards laterally from the ship and 1,000 feet over the water, but did not cross the deck of the Porter.

Moscow pushed back on the allegation Tuesday, with Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov telling Russian state media “there has been no incident on February 10th involving flybys of Russian military planes in the Black Sea next to USS Porter.”

A NATO official told CNN any “non-compliance” by Russian in regard to the treaty is a “serious concern for the alliance.”

“The INF Treaty eliminated an entire category of weapons that threatened Europe, in particular the threat of short-warning attacks. The treaty remains a key component of our security, and any Russian non-compliance is a serious concern for the alliance,” a NATO official told CNN.

“NATO allies have the capabilities in place to ensure that Russia will not gain any military advantage from disregarding the INF Treaty,” the official added.

The Russian cruise missile would be capable of threatening NATO’s European members. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is due to visit NATO’s headquarters to meet with his counterparts Wednesday.

Trump administration’s ties with Russia

The Kremlin’s launch came the day after Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign after failing to fully disclose conversations he had with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. concerning U.S. sanctions while he was not yet in office.

Trump has in the past expressed interest in arms reduction talks with the Kremlin and indicated he would seek a new opening with Moscow.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer, however, said Tuesday that “the president has been incredibly tough on Russia.”

Spicer pointed to UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s recent remarks on the Russia’s actions in east Ukraine and occupation of Crimea, adding that Trump “expects the Russian government to deescalate violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea.”

“At the same time he fully expects to and wants to be able to get along with Russia unlike previous administrations,” he added.

In a Tuesday evening tweet, the Russian embassy in Washington said Russia “will continue to patiently explain to the new US administration why Crimea is Russia.”

Trump himself, though, repeatedly praised Putin on the campaign trail as well as since being elected, while offering few if any criticisms.

Asked about sanctions against Russia, newly minted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Tuesday that sanctions were an important tool but would not specify any intensions towards Russia.

“Our current sanctions programs are in place, and I would say sanctions are an important tool that we will continue to look at for various different countries. But it’s a very important program within the Treasury Department,” Mnuchin said.

In contrast, Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, called for a strong response to the cruise missile.

“If the last administration showed us anything, it’s that ignoring these kinds of provocations simply means they will proliferate,” he said in a statement. “I’ve said before we need to set firm boundaries for Russia’s behavior — and enforce them to the hilt. I take this news as evidence that the US should build up its nuclear forces in Europe.”

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