‘From Russia with Love’ … on Valentines Day: Russian spy ship spotted off Delaware coast

DOVER — Are the Russians coming?

Lt. Col. Valerie Henderson, Defense Department spokeswoman, confirmed the presence of a Russian spy ship off Delaware’s coast on Tuesday.

“We are aware of the vessel’s presence,” she said in an email. “It has not entered U.S. territorial waters. We respect freedom of navigation exercised by all nations beyond the territorial sea of a coastal state consistent with international law.”

At a reported 70 miles from the state’s coast, the ship was well outside territorial waters. According to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, beyond 12 nautical miles from the baseline of a coastal state is considered international waters.

Eric Wertheim, naval analyst and author of the US Naval Institute’s guide “Combat Fleets of the World,” noted that the ship, the SSV-175 Viktor Leonov, is a Vishnya-class intelligence ship built as part of a ship series called Project 864.

“These ships were built in the late ‘80s, toward the end of the cold war,” he said. “They’re used mostly for intercepting all kinds of information and transferring it home.”

The Leonov completes these functions through a series of sensors, radomes and other sophisticated communication equipment, Mr. Wertheim added. At around 3,000 tons of displacement, the ship is similarly sized to a frigate. Its top speed is 16 knots, or about 24 mph.

“It’s not meant to go fast, or be sexy,” said Mr. Wertheim.

At 94 meters long and 14 meters wide, the Leonov plays host to a crew size of about 150 sailors including both officers and enlisted personnel.

“It can carry more, though, because it has extra room,” said Mr. Wertheim. “It has a 45-day endurance, meaning that’s how long it can go without refueling. Its range is about 7,900 nautical miles cruising at 12.5 knots.”

He also noted that the Leonov would have weapons aboard, but it’s far from an offensive ship. The weapons would include short-range surface to air missiles and guns — only useful in a minor self-defense capacity.

The activity the Leonov seems to be engaged in isn’t new. Mr. Wertheim recalls several incidents of Russian intelligence-gathering ships patrolling the East Coast in 2014 and 2015. But it does seem to be increasing in frequency.

“For a long time after the Cold War, the Russian navy was inactive. But recently they’ve been picking back up the pace,” he said. “A lot of times you’ll see these things happening around U.S. naval exercises to gather information.”

As to what exactly the Leonov is up to, Mr. Wertheim says it’s open to speculation. But there are many high-profile military bases and political hubs that serve as points of interest along the East Coast — including Dover Air Force Base.

“There’s Norfolk, Virgina, King’s Bay in Georgia where the nuclear subs are, and in Connecticut you have the Naval Submarine Base in New London. Those are just a few,” he said. “There are plenty of political things they can try to listen in on, too. Their presence in itself is political. The Russian navy, like most navies try to do, is extending their influence around the world.”

Echoing the Department of Defense’s statement, Mr. Wertheim said that while it’s disconcerting to have a foreign vessel close to our coasts, it’s not illegal.

“No country likes to be the one being listened to or examined, but as long as the ship is in international waters, it’s not really a problem,” he said. “Not something we like to see — a potential adversary collecting information — but at the same time, we’re aware of it and monitoring it.”

This type of intelligence gathering isn’t unique to the Russians either, Mr. Wertheim notes.

“Norway, our NATO ally, has a ship called the Marjata, an intelligence vessel almost exactly like this one, and they love to operate it right around the Russian coast,” he said.

The U.S., Mr. Wertheim says, uses a varied approach to its own intelligence gathering.

“We used to operate specific intelligence gathering ships years ago,” he said. “We don’t necessarily do those kinds of things in the same way anymore because we tend to have collection done from all different kinds of sources now.

“We also still have ships that are designed for specific purposes, too, like monitoring submarines.”

Wendy Hudson, communications chief for the Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security, was also aware of the ship’s presence.

“Our State Police Division would work with other law enforcement partners if necessary,” she said.

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