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Russian spy ship ‘unsafely’ close to US nuclear sub base off east coast

The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Maryland (SSBN 738) Gold crew returns to homeport at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia, following a strategic deterrence patrol. The boat is one of five ballistic missile submarines stationed at the base and is capable of carrying up to 20 submarine-launched ballistic missiles with multiple warheads. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Bryan Tomforde/Released)
December 17, 2019

The U.S. Coast Guard issued a warning over a Russian spy ship operating with apparent disregard for safety along the East Coast near Georgia and South Carolina on Sunday.

The Russian ship, Viktor Leonov, was spotted operating in an unsafe manner near a U.S. nuclear sub base, Washington Times reported. The Coast Guard issued a maritime safety information bulletin about Leonov’s activities, including erratic movements, not powering running lights in low visibility conditions and not responding to ships attempting to coordinate safe passage.

The Coast Guard advised vessels traveling near Georgia and South Carolina to “maintain a sharp lookout and use extreme caution when navigating in proximity to this vessel.”

U.S. observers have shadowed the Leonov periodically for years and officials believe the ship’s mission has been to spy Navy facilities and gather intelligence on U.S. nuclear submarines.

The Leonov has been suspected of monitoring a large naval base in Norfolk, Virginia as well as the submarine base at Kings Bay, Georgia.

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The Russian ship has also previously been suspected of tapping undersea internet cables.

Navy observers last tracked the Russian ship in March of 2018 near King’s Bay. At the time, Canadian security analyst Steffan Watkins detailed the signs indicating the ship’s spying activities.

“The ship is outfitted with more than antennas above the water line,” Watkins said. “Viktor Leonov is reported to have magnetic anomaly sensors, acoustic gear to profile American vessels, and have the capability to map the ocean’s floor.”

Though the Viktor Leonov’s activities in March 2018 appeared as part of its routine surveillance activities, U.S. intelligence officials raised increased interest in the ship after Russian President Vladimir Putin revealed the development of an underwater nuclear drone, code-named “Kanyon.”

The Kanyon high-speed underwater drone, also known as Status 6, is reportedly capable of carrying a large nuclear warhead. Such a weapon could destroy entire ports and harbors.

The Kanyon nuclear drone was detailed in a video that depicted an attack on Florida and showcased other Russian weapons in development.

Navy Capt. Pamela Kunze said the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and Northern Command (NORTHCOM) regularly track vessels of interest, such as the Leonov, when they operate within the NORAD and NORTHCOM areas of interest.

“We are aware of Russia’s naval activities, including the deployment of intelligence collection ships in the region,” she said. “While we won’t discuss specific measures being taken, NORAD and USNORTHCOM routinely conduct air and maritime operations to ensure the defense of the United States and Canada.”