Coast Guard Tracking Russian Spy Ship Near Hawaiʻi

The U.S. Coast Guard is keeping an eye on a Russian surveillance ship that has been spotted patrolling in waters off of Hawaiʻi in recent weeks. It and an accompanying vessel have remained in international waters, however satellite photos place it approximately 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Hawaiian shores. 

“In recent weeks, the Coast Guard has continued to monitor a Russian vessel believed to be an intelligence-gathering ship off the coast of the Hawaiian Islands,” a Coast Guard press release stated Thursday, noting that it is not unusual for foreign-flagged military vessels to be observed “operating and loitering” near the state, but that they were “tracking it closely.” The 300-foot ship is believed to specialize in signals intelligence—intercepting and decoding an adversary’s transmissions. 

Identified as the Vladivostok-based Vishnya-class intelligence ship Kareliya—one of seven in the Russian fleet—it is the same ship that was tracked by the Coast Guard just outside U.S. territorial waters off Kauai in 2021. At the time, defense officials determined it to be operating legally in international waters 13 nautical miles from Kauai and not a hazard to navigation. 

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea established a 12 nautical mile (14 mile; 22 kilometer) belt around coastal states as “territorial seas” and regarded as that nation’s sovereign territory. 

In 2019, another Cold-War-era Russian surveillance vessel, the Victor Leonov, was determined to be acting unsafely off the coast of South Carolina and Florida for maneuvering erratically, failing to illuminate its running lights in low visibility conditions, and not responding to nearby vessels’ attempts to hail them. 

Noting the “precarious timing” of the Kareliya’s visit, which occurs amidst heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia due to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said during a Thursday press conference that the Pentagon did not know why the ship was operating so close to Hawaii. “We haven’t seen any unsafe or unprofessional behavior,” she said, “and we expect that the Russians will operate within the region in accordance with international law.” 

The 300-foot Russian signals intelligence ship Kareliya has been spotted off the coast of Hawaiʻi. U.S. Coast Guard photo

Dan Collins