Imminent Danger or Meddlesome Distraction? Russian Spy Ship Off Coast of Groton

Viktor Leonov near Havana, Cuba (2015) Photo courtesy of AP/Desmond Boylan

Last week, a United States defense official identified the Russian spy ship Viktor Leonov 30 miles off the coast of Southeastern Connecticut, prompting a wave of concern that swept through local residents and reached national politicians. While it is not uncommon for foreign vessels to be spotted along American coasts, this incident comes during a particularly sensitive time of growing political tensions between Russia and the United States.

Since concerns arose around the possible hacking of the DNC during the 2016 general election, Russia has received heavy exposure in the media. In the case of the Viktor Leonov, however, Russian activity of the sort has roots in the not-so-distant political past. Throughout the Cold War, it was not uncommon to see Soviet Ships lingering off American waters and vice versa, but sightings of Russian ships in this particular region is unusual.

“Not off the shore of Connecticut,” said Petko Ivanov, Professor of Slavic Studies, “It happens quite often near Florida, but very rarely this close to shore.”

The Viktor Leonov, a Vishnya-class intelligence ship, is designed for non-violent operations that include acquiring information on communications and other forms of radio correspondence, but Ivanov thinks that the Leonov has a different objective.

“They could be here to look at the sub base, but I don’t know why they would want information from such dated technology,” Ivanov added, “This is rather a tactic for scaring us, not collecting intelligence.”

Local residents of New London feel the same way.

“The Russians are good people, I’ve met them. Putin is just trying to make a splash,” commented Steve, a 60-year-old retired antique dealer who has traveled across the globe in his line of work. He added, “the real issue here is people are trying to make Russia into an enemy that it’s not. We need to try and give Trump a chance to make things safe for all of us.” Political opinion aside, this sentiment recurred among people who work and live in New London.

Shian, an employee at Slice Pizza, voiced similar opinions. “I moved to New London about 11 months ago from Charleston when my husband got transferred. I feel safe here,” she explained. Her husband, a member of the Navy currently working at the submarine base in Groton, called to reassure her when the news reported on the Leonov’s proximity to the shore.

“He said that if anything was to go really wrong, the base would have been shut down. It was just a spy ship, they don’t have anything to hurt us with,” Shian reported, continuing: “In all honesty, I think we need to be talking about healthcare and a way to replace Obamacare. It’s too expensive.”

It soon became clear that many New London residents did not feel too threatened by the presence of a Russian ship so close to American soil, and rather feel that Russia should not be the focus while there are so many other important political topics. Ivanov disagrees.

“In terms of national security, Russia is a threat,” said Ivanov, “They are engaging in anti-American propaganda. We need to focus on Russia, but in a different way. Not because of the Trump administration, but because of Russia itself.”

Ivanov, who was born in Bulgaria but has spent significant time in Russia, believes we need to consider the Russian government a true threat because Putin and others are not friends of the U.S. He emphasized that the more Russia is discussed as an asset to Trump, the more the threat that Russia poses becomes obscured.

“In a way, Trump is making everything possible to make Russia great again,” Ivanov warned.