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Russian spy ship off US coast operating in ‘unsafe manner,’ officials say

HAVANA, CUBA - JANUARY 20: The Viktor Leonov CCB-175, a Russian Navy intelligence warship, is docked to a pier in Old Havana January 20, 2015 in Havana, Cuba. The ship sailed into the Havana harbor early Tuesday morning on the eve of the start of historic talks between the United States and Cuba aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — A Russian spy-ship has returned to international waters off the southeastern coast of the United States and is operating in what two US officials told CNN is an “unsafe manner.”

The Viktor Leonov, a Russian surveillance ship, has been sailing off the coast of South Carolina and Florida in the last few days, one official told CNN, adding that the ship’s actions were determined to be unsafe because it is not using running lights in low visibility weather and it is not responding to hails from commercial vessels attempting to establish its position in order to help avoid potential accidents.

The official said the Vishnya-class spy ship was also engaged in “other erratic maneuvers.”

A US Coast Guard official told CNN that the Coast Guard was broadcasting a “Marine Safety Information Bulletin” to alert mariners in the area to the Russian ship’s presence and its behavior.

Russian Vishnya (also known as Meridian) class warship CCB-175 Viktor Leonov, arrives at Havana’s harbor, on February 27, 2014. The Vishnya class ships are used for gathering intelligence. Those ships were built in the 1980s for the Soviet Navy and are still deployed within the Russian fleet. This is the second visit of the warship to Havana. AFP PHOTO/ADALBERTO ROQUE (Photo credit should read ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP via Getty Images)

Increased military presence

A defense official told CNN that the US Navy’s USS Mahan, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, was operating close to the Russian ship.

The Viktor Leonov regularly patrols in international waters along the eastern coast of the US, having done so every year since 2015.

The Russian vessel also routinely operates in the Caribbean, including Cuba and Trinidad and Tobago.

The Russian ship’s presence off the US coast comes as the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer the USS Ross visited Constanta, Romania, Monday for what the Navy called “a scheduled port visit,” part of the US effort to bolster its presence in the Black Sea and support regional partners such as NATO ally Romania.

Russia has boosted its military presence in that area since it seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and it regularly shadows American warships while they operate in the Black Sea.

“Crimea has really more or less, according to our civil society folks, has become an armed camp,” the US State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Rob Destro, told reporters Monday as he discussed “the militarization of Crimea.”

Tensions between Moscow and Washington remain high. Just days ago Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited the White House and repeatedly raised Russian concerns about the US potentially dismantling the last remaining nuclear arms treaty between the two powers, a move that could reignite a US-Russia arms race.

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