(Trinidad Guardian) The Russian intelligence-gathering vessel Viktor Leonov returned to Trinidad for a second time this year and was docked near the Hyatt yesterday. The vessel is expected to depart today.
When the Sunday Guardian visited the dock before noon, about 15 of the ship’s crew in brown uniforms were at the stern of the ship on their down time, smoking and using their cellphones. An officer in camouflaged fatigues was talking with one of the ship’s officers while another interacted with the crew.
There were also two T&T Coast Guard vessels—the TTS Gaspar Grande and TTS Carli Bay—moored near the Femmes du Chalet Breakfast Shed area.
The Viktor Leonov departed T&T on the morning of January 15 after spending five days. Many people have been asking what the ship is doing in Trinidad and its purpose. The 300 ft-long ship is armed with anti-aircraft missiles. The Vishnya or Meridian-class intelligence ship, which has a crew of around 200, went into service in the Black Sea in 1988 before it was transferred seven years later to the Northern Fleet, according to Russian media.
Meanwhile, Marc De Verteuil who tracks American military aircraft in T&T said that a US military C-32B special ops aircraft, call sign NaRK73, landed at Piarco Airport yesterday. “We have or recently (at least up until Carnival) had a USAF U28A flying missions over Trinidad, De Verteuil said. He said it was based at the Air Guard hangar.
De Verteuil said there was a USAF C146A Wolfhound (military derivative of the Do 328) that regularly made visits to Piarco and that plane is used primarily by special ops. He said it was clear that foreign intelligence services were operating here because of what he can only presume was a very serious threat.
The US armed forces usually deploy ships and aircraft to shadow the Russian spy ship.
Close ties to Venezuelan Govt
Researcher Daurius Figueira said one of the reasons for the ship passing through T&T was the country’s close proximity to Venezuela geographically.
“Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro is very close to Russia and Iran who are involved in the conflict in Syria,” Figueira said.
“Even with the sanctions imposed on Venezuela by American President Donald Trump, Russia continues to show solidarity with Maduro by forgiving his debt to Russia.
“Russia is the primary supplier of military aid, along with financial and technical support to the Venezuelan armed forces. Totalling more than US $11 billion, Venezuela represents 75 per cent of Russia’s total foreign military sales in the region.”
He said the Russian state-owned energy firm, Rosneft, had also provided Venezuela with an estimated US $17 billion in financing since 2006.
Figueira said Russia was also increasing its naval activity worldwide and was doing the same thing with its long-range bombers.
He said Russian President Vladimir Putin had extended his hands to Cuba giving the country a lifeline with oil as Venezuela cannot maintain its obligations to Petrocaribe.
The same AGI (auxiliary, general intelligence) ship was docked in Havana on January 20 2015, a day before the start of historic US-Cuba talks aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations.
A security threat to underwater communication cables
Figueira said the Americans felt that the ship represented a threat to the security of underwater communication cables connecting the North and South Atlantic mapping their layout.
Steffan Watkins, a Canadian security analyst who closely tracks Russian ship movements, said in The Washington Free Beacon in January 17 that he traced the Leonov’s movements beginning with its mid-December sail from northeastern Russia and crossing the English Channel on Christmas Eve. He also discovered Facebook postings by a Russian suspected of being one of the Leonov’s crew members that showed photos of the crew’s shore leave in Port-of-Spain.
Watkins said given the ship’s past deployments which lasted around six months and included stops at Russian-allied states such as Cuba and Nicaragua, the ship usually spends around two months spying off the East Coast of the US where there are naval bases and submarine groups.
Watkins said he believed their mission was to take inventory of underwater sensors, military undersea cables, sonar, radar and spy on rocket launches at Cape Canaveral.
No confirmation why ship is in local waters
Yesterday, when contacted, a senior official at the T&T Defence Force (TTDF) confirmed the dates of the ship’s first visit, from January 10 to January 15.
Asked if the TTDF knew the reason for the ship’s second docking and if they knew that it is believed to be a Russian spy ship, the TTDF senior official’s response was “Are you all aware that all military vessels have surveillance equipment?”
Pressed further, the TTDF official said he did not have any information and redirected the Sunday Guardian to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“They will have what you’re looking for. The diplomatic note from foreign governments go to them.”
The Sunday Guardian was told that before any foreign vessel enters T&T waters they first have to undergo an interview by the Maritime Division of the Ministry of Works and Transport. Once the interviewed is satisfactory, permission is given to dock.
Military ships docking in POS over previous years have been a “norm,” according to an official at the Port, who did not want to be identified.
“Sometimes they come here to fuel up. Some times they come for other supplies. Some times they are here if its respective consulate here is having some sort of celebration or the marking of an anniversary. Sometimes as part of National Security special exercises,” the Port official said.
When Transport Minister Rohan Sinanan was contacted yesterday, he said the presence of the Russian spy ship was not unprecedented or unusual. He said there was nothing strange for vessels like that to visit Trinidad from time to time as long as their documents are in order.
Efforts to reach Minister of National Security Minister Edmund Dillon and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Dennis Moses yesterday for comment were iunsuccessful as calls to their respective phones went unanswered and they did not reply to messages.