What are two Russian subs doing off the US coast?

The Pentagon doesn't know. But it's the first such incident in nearly 10 years, suggesting that the Russian military is flexing its muscle.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Deputy chief of staff of Russia's armed forces Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn shows a military map as he speaks to the media in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday. Nogovitsyn says two nuclear-powered Russian attack submarines that have been spotted off the US East Coast are part of regular patrols.

The Pentagon confirmed Wednesday that two Russian submarines are operating off the East Coast of the United States.

The two nuclear-powered subs are actually operating in international waters as close as 200 miles from the Eastern seaboard. That is the closest Russian subs have come to the US in about a decade, Pentagon officials said.

The patrols are probably meant to send a political signal, not a military one, says Stephen Flanagan, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

This is Russia essentially saying: "don't count us out," he says. "They want to show that they are a capable military power that can do these things."

The subs' foray is part of a trend. Reports suggest that Russian "Bear Bombers" have been flying over the North Cape of Norway more often lately. The Japanese have reported similar overflights, Mr. Flanagan says. The Russians conducted some naval exercises with Venezuela during the last year, as well.

"It's not a good sign politically, but not a militarily worrisome development," Flanagan says.

The Pentagon has sought to play down the subs's significance.

"What are they doing? I don't know what they're doing off the coast, I don't think any of us know what they're doing," Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon's press secretary, told reporters Wednesday.

Mr. Morrell acknowledged that American vessels freely operate in international waters off the Russian coast from time to time, and that the Russian subs are "entitled" to do the same. He said he did not believe the US had reached out to the Russians for clarification on the subs' operations.

But with US attempting to improve its relations with Russia, it is important not to have a knee-jerk reaction, assigning motives that may not necessarily be there, he added.

"While it's interesting and noteworthy that they are in this part of the world, it doesn't pose any threat and it doesn't cause any concern," he said. "So we watch it, we're mindful of it, but it doesn't necessitate anything more than that."

Mr. Flanagan says the subs could be on a tactical mission of some sort, or they may simply be stretching their naval muscles, monitoring US naval traffic out of ports in Virginia and Georgia.

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