Russian Submarines off U.S. East Coast Spark Cold War Comparisons

The growing presence of Russian submarines off the coast of the United States has sparked Cold War comparisons from military observers and a retired NATO admiral.

The Russian military has undergone a sweeping modernization drive after it was forced to abandon many new ships following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Russian navy now commands one of the most diverse submarine fleets in the world, with an estimated 58 vessels. Some of them are capable of carrying ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads, which Moscow considers key to its strategic deterrent.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been set on expanding Russia's underwater capabilities. Over the past several years, Moscow has been producing a series of submarines that have the capability to reach the most critical targets in the U.S. or continental Europe.

Russian nuclear submarine Yuri Dolgorukiy
Russian nuclear submarine Yuri Dolgorukiy (NATO reporting name: SSBN "Borei", or "Dolgorukiy") is seen during the Navy Day Military parade July, 27, 2014, in Severomorsk. United States commanders and military observers are sounding the alarm about the activity of Russia's submarine fleet off the U.S. coast. Getty Images/Sasha Mordovets

The Russian leader said in December his country would be building more nuclear-powered submarines that "will ensure Russia's security for decades to come." Meanwhile, a Kremlin document signed by Putin in 2017, which lays out the Russian navy's improved capabilities, its evolving strategic and operational role, and its future ambitions, states the nation "must possess powerful balanced fleets in all strategic areas" by 2030.

Amid the arms reforms, there have been deployments of Russian submarines that mirror Soviet-style submarine deployments in the Cold War, Newsweek has been told.

Michael Petersen, director of the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College, which conducts research on Russian military and economic issues linked to the world's oceans, told Newsweek that there are indications that "nuclear-powered submarines have been deploying off the coast of the United States and into the Mediterranean and elsewhere along European periphery."

They "mirror Soviet-style submarine deployments in the Cold War," said Petersen, who is also a professor at the staff college in Rhode Island.

Russia is the "critical challenge" that the United States faces today, he said, responding to remarks made by U.S. Air Force General Glen VanHerck, the head of U.S. Northern Command and NORAD, who previously characterized Russia as the primary threat to the country due to the presence of its nuclear-powered Severodvinsk-class submarines near the U.S.

Mirroring Tactics

Cruise missile threats are being presented off the east coast of the United States in patrol areas that are similar to what the U.S. saw in the late stages of the Cold War in the 1970s to early 1980s, Petersen said.

During a period of the Cold War, starting in the 1960s, and through the mid to late 1980s, the Soviet Union was regularly sending nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines to patrol off the east and west coast of the United States, he explained.

"Those patrol locations shifted over time as undersea warfare technology improved, and as submarine technology improved. By and large, that's what I mean by the sort of mirroring of tactics."

Petersen noted that in the mid-60s to the mid-70s, there were submarine patrol areas that were relatively close to the east and west coasts of the U.S.

"That was because of the ballistic missile technology that existed at the time, submarine-launched ballistic missiles did not have the range in the 1960s and early 1970s that they do now. They did not have that long intercontinental range," he said.

The Soviet Union then pushed its ballistic missile, and submarine patrols out to the east and west coast of the United States, he said.

"And as time progressed, through the 1970s and 1980s, as new submarines came online, new submarine-launched ballistic missile technology was developed that increased the range of these weapons, those patrol boxes shifted.

"In the '70s and early '80s, in general, we would commonly see submarines again deploying off the east and west coast, but in larger areas—those very small patrol boxes expanded out to include most of the eastern seaboard and western seaboard and out into the mid-Atlantic."

By the mid to late '80s, those patrol areas began to recede off the east coast of the U.S. as ballistic missile technology got better and range improved, Petersen went on.

"The submarines didn't necessarily need to deploy right up close to the U.S. coastline anymore—they could fall back into these bastions that were either further out into the mid-Atlantic or even back up into the Barents Sea, depending on the range of the missiles.

"So there's a relationship between the location of those patrol areas in the Cold War and submarine-launched ballistic missile technology," Petersen added. "That appears to be similar to the deployments we're seeing today."

Operation Atrina

Tom Shugart, an adjunct senior fellow with the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, told Newsweek there is a "clear linkage" between Russians talking about their Cold War operations and comparing them to what they say they're doing now, or recently.

He pointed to Operation Atrina, which reportedly saw five Victor III nuclear-powered attack submarines reach the U.S. east coast undetected, operating there from March to May 1987.

Shugart pointed out that a number of Russian news articles have linked a series of Russian submarine operations in 2019 to Operation Atrina.

Norwegian media reported in October 2019 that about 10 submarines of the Russian Northern Fleet were detected in the North Atlantic, of which eight were nuclear-powered. Norway's military intelligence agency said at the time that Russia sought "to test the West's ability to detect and handle this."

"Russia wants to say that 'this is our sea, we can do this. We are able to reach the United States.' That's what Russia wants to tell us," the agency told state broadcaster NRK.

Days later, a number of Russian news outlets, including the daily broadsheet Izvestia, published a feature comparing the feat to Operation Atrina. It said the operation demonstrated "the possibility of breaking through the lines of the existing NATO anti-submarine defense lines."

"These operations, especially Atrina, made a strong impression on the admirals of the fleets of the countries of the alliance. Most of all, they were surprised by the hidden breakthrough by Soviet nuclear-powered ships of all anti-submarine defense lines," Izvestia reported at the time.

Russian Behavioral Patterns

The level of Russian submarine deployment is similar to what was seen in the Cold War, in terms of numbers, Admiral Manfred Nielson, who was Germany's highest-ranking NATO admiral before he retired in September 2019, said.

"I personally believe that Russia never changes its behavior because they are operating, of course, an impressive submarine fleet and showing that they can be represented all over the world," Nielson told Newsweek.

"So now maybe there are some investigations that they are currently operating more off the United States Coast. I can't see any difference between the Cold War and today's activities."

Nielson said he believes Russia sees it as important to meet other world powers, such as the U.S., at eye level. "I think it's only a demonstration so that the others can believe Russia is not a negligible nation in the world."

Newsweek has contacted Russia's defense ministry by email for comment.

Do you have a tip on a world news story that Newsweek should be covering? Do you have a question about the Russia-Ukraine war? Let us know via