When trouble flares in Kosovo — as it does with depressing regularity — NATO doesn’t send for combat units to reinforce; it sends for Italian Carabinieri, a gendarmerie-style force with a long record of keeping the peace between Kosovans and Serbs.
That’s what happened in November when a seemingly arcane dispute about car registration plates threatened extensive communal violence. That’s already the unit’s everyday role, as it conducts tasks including policing the bridge between Mitrovica and Mitrovicë, a single town divided by a river and two fundamentally opposed views of the future.
Carabinieri have been a key component of all NATO peacekeeping and stabilization operations in the recent past, from the Balkans to Afghanistan and Iraq, and currently form a central part of the 3,800-strong K-FOR, which has been holding the line in Kosovo for more than two decades.
It’s worth recalling this as the alliance begins again to confront an aggressive Russia willing to engage in full-scale conventional warfare against its neighbors. That emphasis, prompted by the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, risks overshadowing NATO’s challenges along its southern flank. To deal with the increasing instability and complex gray-zone conflicts across its neighborhood, the alliance must enhance its crisis prevention and management abilities, including stability policing.
It is natural that the all-out invasion should be focusing minds. At NATO’s June summit in Madrid, allies agreed to recognize Russia as “the most significant and direct threat to allied security” and upgrade defense plans, prompting the biggest overhaul to the alliance’s defense strategy since the Cold War. While, on paper, the new Strategic Concept reaffirms the equal importance of the other two NATO pillars — cooperative security, and crisis prevention and management — in practice, deterrence and defense will likely receive the most attention, both in terms of political-military commitments and financial resources.
This shift may affect tasks like training and mentoring partner forces and, more generally, peacekeeping and stability operations. It could also impact stability policing, an essential function of crisis management that bridges the gap between pre-conflict tensions and all-out warfare.
The concept of stability policing dates back to the Multinational Specialized Units (MSUs) deployed by NATO for the first time in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1997. These regiment-size police units, consisting of gendarmerie-type forces with overall police duties but military status, were to fill the “security gap” in semi-hostile operational environments made evident by the fiasco of the United Nations mission in Somalia, and the difficulties encountered by peacekeepers in Bosnia, which culminated in the massacre of some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica in 1995. The MSUs, devised by the Carabinieri, proved ideal for law enforcement and other police tasks in areas existing between war and peace.
The success of the Balkan MSUs culminated in an allied joint doctrine, the AJP-3.22, which codifies the principles of “stability policing” and was approved by 23 member states in 2016. That number has not risen to 26.
The Carabinieri is the custodian of stability policing for the alliance, having played a pivotal role in the definition and acceptance of its doctrine, which defines this capability as “police-related activities intended to reinforce or replace the indigenous police in order to contribute to the restoration and/or upholding of the public order and security, rule of law, and the protection of human rights.”
A key feature is its relevance to operations related to all articles of NATO’s founding treaty, including Article 5. This means that stability policing is not relegated to post-conflict situations but rather it can be conducted across the entire spectrum of conflict, allowing everything from reinforcement of local security forces to temporarily replacing them during high-risk operations.
This gives NATO the ability to anticipate a crisis or prevent its escalation. But difficulties remain. Alliance policy usually moves from the conceptual to the practical, but stability policing has followed a reverse process, evolving from an operational idea into a doctrinal body without an underpinning strategic concept. This has resulted in a formal capability gap within the NATO Defense Planning Process and can create loopholes and critical capability limitations.
NATO member state police forces vary enormously; many have no equivalent of the paramilitary Carabinieri; while national powers and legal environments are also very different. The scholar Michael Dziedzic identifies two additional challenges: the unsolved issue regarding the stability policing units’ operational chain of command, and the conceptual spats prompted by NATO Military Staff’s suggestion to incorporate stability policing into the NATO Security Force Assistance concept.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the results on the European security landscape add to these challenges and risk further delays in approving the stability policing concept. This would be a mistake. Russia may well resort to increased hybrid warfare, combining the use of shadowy private military companies, disinformation campaigns, and political support to kleptocratic elites, to create distractions along NATO’s borders. China’s anti-Western propaganda and behavior are also worrying. It would be brave, bordering on foolish, to assume that the day of gray-zone threats is over.
The definitive codification of a robust police force capability should be a priority for NATO.
Federico Borsari is a Leonardo Fellow at the Center for European Political Analysis (CEPA), NATO 2030 Global Fellow, and a Visiting Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). His main research interests include security and defense dynamics, transatlantic security relations, and the impact of new technologies on warfare.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.