The Pentagon has detected two Russian-attack submarines patrolling several hundred miles off the East coast of the United States, but it's not clear if this is a sign that Russia is trying to reassert military capabilities severely weakened since the end of the Cold War.
Two Defense Department officials confirm to ABC News that the submarines have been detected in international waters more than 200 miles from the U.S. coastline for the past two weeks, and that their actions have been determined to not be provocative.
Both Defense officials said one of the Russian submarines remained in international waters about 200 miles off the southeastern coast of the United States, and that the other submarine was operating off Greenland. American territorial waters begin 12 miles out to sea.
A statement by U.S. Northern Command confirmed the American military's tracking of the Russian submarines. "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," said the statement.
At a Pentagon briefing on today, press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters that the submarine patrol had not raised red flags because the Russian navy is free to operate in international waters as much as the U.S. Navy does.
"It doesn't cause any alarm within this building," he said. "It doesn't pose any threat."
First reported by The New York Times, the incident is another sign of the Russian military's increased activity in the Western Hemisphere. Last year, Russia resumed flights by Tu-95 "Bear" bombers in international airspace near Alaska. Also, last December the Russian navy sent three ships to participate in joint exercises with Venezuela, the first such deployment to the region since the end of the Cold War.
One of the Defense officials said it's unclear what the Russian navy's intent is other than freedom of navigation. He added there is no intelligence that suggests the vessels have any upcoming ports of call in the Western Hemsiphere.
Morrell said the United States did not know specifically what the vessels were doing, but said it appeared to be part of an effort on Russia's part "to project force around the world, or at least to take excursions around the world."
"So we don't look at this action and automatically see threatening motives," Morrell said. "We view this, we are mindful of it, we watch it, but we do not assign motives that we don't believe are there."
Russian submarine activity off the American coastline was a common occurrence during the Cold War, but became rare as a Russian navy depleted by budget cuts hardly strayed far from Russia's coastline.
Comments by Russian navy officials suggested nothing out of the ordinary by the ships' presence off the U.S. coastline. The Russian state-run news service RIA Novosti quoted a senior Naval officer as saying, "Russian submarines have never stopped patrolling the world's oceans, but their movements are of a secret nature and are never commented on by representatives of the Navy."
The Interfax news agency quotes another unnamed high-ranking "military-diplomatic"official who downplayed any "hysteria" about the submarines' movements in international waters.
"The movement of military ships in international waters cannot be called a violation in any way," the official told Interfax. "The Russian navy systematically detects NATO submarines, particularly U.S. submarines close to Russian territorial waters." The official continued, "However, this has never been a reason to create a fuss in the press since international maritime law is not being violated. Therefore, any hysteria is out of place in this case."
Though the submarine activity has raised eyebrows at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a Senate committee this past January that he was not too concerned by the Russian navy's renewed capabilities in the region last fall.
"I felt that our best response to the Russian ship visits to Venezuela was nonchalance," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "In fact, if it hadn't been for the events in Georgia in August, I would've tried to persuade the president to invite the Russian ships to pay a port call in Miami, because I think they would've had a lot better time than they did in Caracas."
Gates told the committee that the drop in world's oil prices had reduced Russia's income and its ability to build up its navy."At 40 dollar oil the Russian navy does not bother me very much."