Donald Trump, Michael Flynn and the Russian ship just off the Eastern Seaboard add up to suspicious minds
For days, news reports have noted the presence of a Russian naval ship lurking in international waters off the east coast of the United States. For some critics of President Donald Trump, the vessel has become a symbol of the administration’s ties with Russia.
Trump himself referred to the ship at a marathon news conference Thursday, saying that his critics probably think “the greatest thing I could do is shoot that ship that’s 30 miles offshore right out of the water.” He ruled that out.
Later in the news conference he added that he wouldn’t telegraph his plans regarding the vessel: “So when you ask me what am I going to do with a ship, the Russian ship as an example, I’m not going to tell you,” he said. “But hopefully, I won’t have to do anything, but I’m not going to tell you.”
A Coast Guard official on Thursday said the presence of the intelligence ship, called the Viktor Leonov, so close to American shores is not unprecedented, and is not a cause for alarm.
The vessel has been travelling along the Eastern Seaboard and was spotted near Connecticut, Virginia and Delaware. Capt. Andrew Tucci, who oversees Long Island Sound and coastal Connecticut, said the Coast Guard knew the Russian ship had been travelling from the Caribbean “for some time.”
“This vessel was transiting all up the Eastern Seaboard, and the Coast Guard and other military and federal government agencies are aware,” Tucci said.
By the time the public learned of it Wednesday, it had started to move in the direction of a submarine base in Groton, Connecticut, staying at least 50 kilometres offshore.
Tucci said that his region is traversed mostly by commercial fishing vessels and oceangoing freight ships, but that the Coast Guard had no reason to contact the Russian ship. U.S. territory extends 12 miles out to sea.
“It may not be a daily occurrence, but it is not unusual,” he said of the appearance of the Russian vessel. Asked how often a foreign military ship passes off the U.S. coast, he said “a couple times a year,” adding that it was mostly as an “overt courtesy” call.
“It did not come into American waters and did not make an official port call,” Tucci said of the Russian vessel. “But I guess it is a matter of what is your definition of unusual. But it raised no special concerns among the United States Coast Guard.”
While the ship was being treated publicly as little more than a passing event from a maritime stance, its presence became entangled in the political discourse, especially after Michael Flynn resigned this week as national security adviser after admitting that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about his phone calls with a Russian diplomat.
Connecticut Democrat Rep. Joe Courtney, a member of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, said Wednesday on the House floor and in a published statement that the presence of the Russian “spy ship” about 50 km from the Groton submarine base was one of several “destabilizing” actions by Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.
“This unacceptable, aggressive action, combined with the buzzing of U.S. Navy ships in the Black Sea yesterday, are clearly testing the resolve of a new administration,” Courtney said in the statement on his website. “While I have total confidence in our Navy’s vigilant, responsible readiness, the White House needs to move past their seeming infatuation with Putin and treat him like the serious threat to global peace and security that he has been for the last five years.”
In Congress, the representative said the appearance of the ship fit into a Russian pattern of aggression, including the recent deployment of a new cruise missile that U.S. officials say violated a landmark arms control treaty.
“This administration needs to wake up and recognize that and move on to a bipartisan effort to respond to this threat,” Courtney said. “And they can do that by again disclosing all of the background regarding Gen. Flynn’s interactions with the Russian government, because it is part and parcel of all those incidents which I listed in terms of aggressive actions that are happening in real time as we are here in Washington, D.C., today.”
Though Connecticut Democrat Rep. Jim Himes said in a statement Wednesday the ship did “not present a direct threat to our physical safety,” he added that its appearance was troubling, however, viewed in conjunction with the stories of “Russian ties and interference in the Trump administration and the recent deployment of a Russian cruise missile in apparent violation of international agreements.”
He added, “In my opinion, Russia is making a show of strength and pushing established boundaries and norms to gauge the reaction of a new administration in disarray.”
For years, the 300-foot ship, which has equipment monitoring sonar and communications and carries defensive weaponry, has been patrolling near naval installations on the East Coast and was spotted two years ago near the Navy’s Trident ballistic missile submarine base in Kings Bay, Georgia, The Hartford Courant newspaper reported.
“It’s been going on for years,” said Jeff Walsh, a retired Navy senior chief, who served 22 years aboard attack submarines and who works at Electric Boat in Groton. Walsh was quoted by the newspaper as saying that the attention roused by the ship was amusing to people who understand the context.
“It’s going to keep going on until everyone wants to play nice.”