10 JUN 16 – Executive Intelligence Summary – Forward Observer Shop

10 JUN 16 – Executive Intelligence Summary


The SHTF Indicators section answers our Priority Intelligence Requirements. Appendix: Collection of acronyms and definitions used.

[wcm_nonmember] In this EXSUM…

  • What is the current status of the NATO-Russia conflict?
  • How will Russia target the U.S. mainland during a Western conflict?

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Last month, I described that our Executive Intelligence Summary would be changing in order to give me the ability to focus solely on SHTF Indicators — that is, describing the potential SHTF scenarios (e.g., a cyber attack on critical infrastructure, economic instability, or political violence) and where we sit on that spectrum.  The idea is for us to focus on the strategic and operational levels, and then our subscribers can focus on describing the effects on their communities.  Truth be told, there are many, many more requirements that I could list that could have a large impact on the States, but the five areas I’ve settled on will likely have the greatest impact.

The initial set of Priority Intelligence Requirements, or PIRs, include the most pressing matters we face: (1) a war with Russia and (2) a war with China (namely the domestic effects of those conflicts), (3) political-related violence that leads to more widespread domestic conflict, (4) economic and monetary instability that leads to civil unrest, and (5) Islamic terrorism aimed at systems disruption.


In this EXSUM…

  • What is the current status of the NATO-Russia conflict?
  • How will Russia target the U.S. mainland during a European conflict?

In next week’s EXSUM:

  • What are the indicators of political-related violence?
  • What are the indicators of economic instability?


SHTF Indicators:


What is the current status of the NATO-Russia conflict?

Bottom Line Up Front: The outbreak of war between NATO and Russia is unlikely right now, however, the risk is increasing.  In response to NATO expansion after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian President Vladimir Putin embarked on a pro-nationalist campaign resulting in the annexation of parts of Ukraine.  In response, NATO is gearing up to prevent continued incursions into former Warsaw Pact and Soviet satellite states.  As NATO modernizes its military and mobilizes contingency plans, Putin responds.

Background: In 2014, the Obama Administration began the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), focused on providing military and moral support to European allies concerned with Russian aggression.  Russian president Vladimir Putin feels squeezed by the expansion of NATO, in what he describes as a violation of the 1997 Founding Act meant to foster cooperation between NATO and the Russian Federation.  In response to NATO activities, Putin has set an agenda of military action abroad, starting in South Ossetia (2008), Ukraine (2014), and Syria (2015).  NATO members feel that the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), each of which has a substantial ethnically-Russian population, are prime targets for Russian military action as Putin claws back pro-Russian remnants of the former Soviet Union.

NATO: Since Pentagon wargaming discovered bleak prospects earlier this year, pro-NATO think tanks have been describing how NATO could defend the Baltic States from Russian aggression.  And this is a solid indicator of where their concern lies.  Since the invasion of Ukraine put hybrid warfare on the map — as Russian regular forces posed as Ukrainian militias, and cyber and electronic attacks disrupted Ukraine’s response — NATO is rightly concerned about this happening again elsewhere.  Chief among the measures to defend against this Russian hybrid invasion is better intelligence, with a specific focus on early warning.  Coming in a close second is cyber defense.  Russia’s ability to degrade command and control through cyber and electronic attacks makes the Baltic defense vulnerable.  We’ve seen Denmark and other NATO nations become deathly serious about upgrading their cyber defenses and Russia has, time and again, proved their capabilities.  Finally, NATO is improving its counterintelligence capabilities.  Russian espionage is complex and the SVR, the Russian foreign intelligence service, is running circles around the rest of Europe.

What we’re seeing with the development of multi-national battalions is an attempt to be better prepared to defend any nation, regardless of the units involved.  NATO recently deployed four additional combat battalions to Poland and the Baltic States.  Meanwhile military exercises are aimed at improving readiness and interoperability of diverse militaries.  We’re seeing force modernization continue for NATO member nations, as Denmark just approved a purchase of F-35s to replace their aging F-16s.  The new NATO chief, U.S. Army General Curtis Scaparrotti, continually states that war is an option on the table.  NATO announced this week the creation of a new Chief Intelligence post to track Russian activities in Europe.  And non-NATO members like Sweden, while not joining NATO, are seriously considering greatly expanded cooperation.  All these things point to a NATO readying for war.

Russia:  Right now through espionage and propaganda, Russia is preparing the battlespace in the Baltic States.  Russia has been caught red-handed manipulating foreign media outlets, propagandizing both ethnically and non-ethnically Russian populations abroad, engaging in what can most politely be called “cyber meddling” against European nations, and harassing the airspace of NATO member nations with both long-range bombers and interceptor aircraft.  Vladimir Putin’s “Make Russia Great Again” agenda has inspired high levels of nationalist sentiment at home and abroad among the Russian diaspora left stranded just beyond its borders after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Like NATO, Russia is preparing for war.  Just this week, we saw reports that Russia’s defense industry grew by 13% in 2015, and Russia’s main air academy will double its number of graduates in 2017.  And last month, Russian Prime Minister Dmetri Medvedev was quoted as saying, “We are currently engaged in reequipping the whole army, the Armed Forces, the Navy with new samples of weapons, there are certain targets to meet and certainly, it is necessary to ensure competitiveness of our products worldwide.”

On one hand, we shouldn’t feel bad for Vladimir Putin, a true despot who has his political enemies arrested or murdered.  On the other hand, the inclusion of former Warsaw Pact nations into NATO — countries like Albania, Bulgaria, and Romania, among others — forces him on the defensive at at time when Russian trajectory depends on not being squeezed out politically, culturally and economically by the West.  The West’s message to Putin is to become pro-Western or risk replacement.  So when Putin responded to NATO expansion by reclaiming areas of Ukraine like Crimea, where 93% of voters chose Russian annexation, Russia had sanctions placed on his country.  For over a hundred years, Russians have survived through revolutions, world wars and invasions, political instability, and economic destruction, so we’ve seen Western sanctions against Russia actually embolden nationalism against the West.

Conclusion: Neither country can afford a war, and certainly not one of national mobilization and large scale fighting.  Still, NATO is going to have its hands full in a limited war with Russia.  There are some disparities and capability gaps that NATO is trying to overcome, especially on a short time frame.  A war in the near future is unlikely, however, with every troop deployment and weapon procurement, we do inch closer to conflict.


How will Russia target the U.S. mainland during a European conflict?

Where potential SHTF scenarios are concerned, this is where our ears should perk up.  If war is inevitable — that is to say, if war is Putin’s only option for saving Russian national sovereignty and protecting his front yard from NATO expansion — then it’s in Russia’s best interest to delay U.S. troop deployments to the region.  Alternatively, disrupting the peace inside the U.S. is a play that should also be on the table for Putin.  And both of those potential courses of action mean systems disruption to power, fuel, communications, or other critical infrastructure.  I think the way this plays out is that, if they’re to engage in cyber war, then it’s done with plausible deniability.  One thing we’ve seen Russian cyber teams do is use attack vectors that look very similar to criminal or terrorist enterprises.  A cyber attack carried out in a foreign country by a non-state group (in Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan, for instance) could afford Russia that plausible deniability and give Putin the opportunity on a public stage to offer to help U.S. investigators.

This is an extreme action, for sure, and I think we’re looking at a window of opportunity if or when Russian national sovereignty is threatened.  If Putin adopts a scorched earth policy, then we could certainly see unlimited cyber warfare against U.S. targets that might even be augmented by Iranian, North Korean, and Chinese cyber units.

In terms of shaping operations, Russian news outlets like Russia Today (now called RT) and Sputnik are already engaged in propaganda against the West.  Shaping public opinion of Western nations is a major goal, and one that will pay dividends before and during conflict.  Russia’s ability to give a platform and a loudspeaker to foreign groups and individuals who espouse anti-U.S. policy is an important achievement for them.  If we look to Vietnam and Iraq for clues about how the American public reacts to losses in war, I think Putin, like Ho Chi Minh, understands that modern Americans can be scared away from conflict.  That’s why we’re seeing a deliberate effort to establish Russian reporting in the English language like RT (established in 2005) and Sputnik News (established in 2014).  There’s no doubt that Russian efforts currently include shaping U.S. public opinion.

We’ll continue to monitor open source reporting for warnings and indicators of how a Russian conflict will affect domestic stability.




ERI: European Reassurance Initiative

NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organization

RT: Russia Today


Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.


  1. It would also appear that the USA is beefing up the security inside the Ukraine through additional forty contracted police advisers with DoJ’s International Criminal Investigation Training Assistance Program. They are specifically looking for tactical and SWAT training, not the typical administrative and patrol functions. OSCE is also funding a rule of law team to help shore up what little criminal justice system they have in place. One of my lawyer buddies is heading up this effort. The Ukraine is still very active and not out of the woods yet.

  2. I’m wondering if we believe the US has cyber capabilities superior to Russia, China, and the major cyber attackers. I never hear anything about US capabilities…

  3. Do you think it within the scope of Russia’s play book to cause, encourage, or assist in provocation of political or civil disturbances to disturb the peace and cause further divides and violence among classes and races locally?

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