World leaders meeting at the United Nations General Assembly, which begins Tuesday in New York, must make nuclear arms control a priority, according to a group of more than 100 political, military and diplomatic figures from Europe and Russia. They have issued a joint statement warning that the risks of nuclear accident, misjudgment or miscalculation have not been higher since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Their statement follows the formal termination last month of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty between the United States and Russia. Washington had accused Moscow of breaching the treaty and argued that the agreement was out of date, as it should include other nuclear-armed states like China.
This month, Russia's President Vladimir Putin announced his country would start to build new missiles previously banned under the INF Treaty, but would not deploy them unless the United States did so first.
As the risks increase, the United Nations must take the lead in global arms control, says former British Defense Secretary Des Browne, who is now chairman of the European Leadership Network, which coordinated the statement.
"In particular, the arms control architecture that we've depended on for decades is eroding. And just to complicate matters further, new technologies are being developed, which intermingled with nuclear weapons are generating not only unregulated capacity, but risks that we've never seen before," Browne said.
Those weapons include hypersonic missiles, which are under development in Russia, the U.S., China and Australia. The weapons can travel at more than 25 times the speed of sound and are purportedly able to evade all defense systems.
More and more countries are seeking to develop their own missile systems. Three decades after the end of the Cold War, Europe remains on the front line, Browne says.
"From a European perspective, the deteriorating trust between the West and Russia in the broadest sense and the unpicking of this architecture, which has happened systematically over the last decade or so, generates particular concerns for us because we live in an environment in which 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons are either stored or deployed. And many of them that are deployed are minutes from use," he said.
North Korea, India, Pakistan
The statement warns that it's not only European security at risk. North Korea has grown its nuclear stockpile, while tensions are flaring between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. And the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is in danger of collapsing following the United States' withdrawal last year.
The joint statement urges leadership in arms control.
"Simply coercing an adversary will not restore stability. Politically unrealistic appeals for transformed behavior will not build trust. An accelerating arms race makes both trust and safer behaviors harder to achieve," the statement says, adding that, "It is possible to negotiate with adversaries without condoning unacceptable behavior. Leaders must relearn the skills of past decades in finding ways to reduce shared nuclear risks in the absence of wider trust."
The signatories urge the U.S. and Russia to look into new approaches to address the development of new weapons; and state that China and other nuclear weapons states should promote work on strategic stability. In the current geopolitical environment, reaching agreement at the U.N. will not be easy.