Russian General Calls Submarine Patrols off U.S. East Coast Routine

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 6, 2009

MOSCOW, Aug. 5 -- A senior Russian general on Wednesday brushed off American concerns about two Russian submarines spotted off the East Coast of the United States, saying the patrols were routine and suggesting that the U.S. Navy carries out similar missions near Russia.

"I don't know if there is any news in this news for anyone," said Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of staff of the Russian armed forces. "The fleet shouldn't sit on its hands and be idle."

Moscow often deployed its submarines off the U.S. coast during the Cold War, but the collapse of the Soviet Union left the Russian military in shambles. Now the Russian navy rarely takes on missions far from its home ports.

The presence of the two nuclear-powered attack submarines in international waters near the U.S. coast, first reported by the New York Times, suggests a more assertive Russian military posture and follows Moscow's decision two years ago to resume Cold War-style flights of nuclear-capable bombers across the Atlantic.

Asked at a news conference about the submarines, Nogovitsyn drew a comparison to the resumption of the long-range bomber missions. "This is our right. We got tired of flying circles on our routes and started strategic flights," he said.

"And you remember how much clamor this caused at the time? Just because we started going out on combat patrols," he continued. "But I must tell you that the battle potential of our strategic aviation is serious, and has only risen since then."

"Long voyages of Russian submarines, this is a normal process," he added, saying U.S. officials who are expressing concerns "understand this very well."

Lt. Desmond James, a spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command, issued a written statement confirming that the Pentagon has been watching Russian submarines operating in international waters off the coast.

"We have been monitoring them during transit and recognize the right of all nations to exercise freedom of navigation in international waters according to international law," he said.

The New York Times quoted unidentified Defense Department officials expressing concern about the unusual patrols but also saying that the submarines have not taken any provocative actions.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Wednesday: "Did we have an indication that they were coming this way? Sure. . . . The larger question is, is it of concern to us. And the answer to that is -- no."

In August 2007, when then-President Vladimir Putin ordered a resumption of the strategic bomber flights, some U.S. officials suggested that the decision presented little military threat and carried primarily symbolic weight. Russia had halted the flights in 1992 in part because it could no longer afford the fuel.

Putin, who is now prime minister, said the missions would continue regularly on a "permanent basis" because similar flights by other countries were causing "certain problems for ensuring the security of the Russian Federation."

Analysts said it was not clear whether the submarine patrol was an isolated episode or would become a regular occurrence.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company