Reports of Russian warships used to gather intelligence on U.S. ballistic missile submarines near the Florida border have been confirmed by U.S. officials.
The spying comes amid heightened U.S.-Russia tensions over the crisis in Ukraine, where Russian forces annexed the Crimea last year and are continuing to arm pro-Moscow rebels in the eastern part of the country.
The Kings Bay base is homeport for the Navy’s Submarine Group 10, with six nuclear-armed missile submarines and two conventionally armed missile submarines.
“It’s been all in international waters and all perfectly legal,” said a defense official familiar with efforts to monitor the ship. “But it’s interesting that it is operating, collecting on us where it is.”
This week, the Leonov was spotted anchored about 22 miles off the Florida coast, southeast of Kings Bay.
It reportedly left Cuba on Jan. 22, and its movements since then have not been made public.
The ship, known as an AGI in military parlance, is equipped with high technology gear designed to pick up electronic communications and underwater signals. It is also armed with 30-millimeter cannon and anti-aircraft guns.
The Leonov recently made headlines by making a port visit to Havana, Cuba, in late January that coincided with the Obama administration’s initiative to normalize relations with the communist regime in Cuba.
The spy ship’s presence also comes as Russia is increasing the number of strategic bomber flights near U.S. and allied coasts. One recent air defense zone incursion took place near eastern Canada that U.S. officials said simulated a nuclear cruise missile attack on the United States.