NEW YORK -- The United States and its nuclear allies Monday (August 1) rebuked Russia for "irresponsible and dangerous" talk about possibly deploying nuclear weapons as a review of the keystone nuclear treaty opened at the United Nations (UN).
"Following Russia's unprovoked and unlawful war of aggression against Ukraine, we call on Russia to cease its irresponsible and dangerous nuclear rhetoric and behavior, to uphold its international commitments," said the United States, France and Britain in a statement.
Russia announced it had placed its nuclear forces on alert shortly after its invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
"Nuclear weapons, for as long as they exist, should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war. We condemn those who would use or threaten to use nuclear weapons for military coercion, intimidation, and blackmail," the United States, France and Britain said in their statement.
The call was issued as leaders met at the UN in New York for the 10th review conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which came into force in 1970.
The meeting was postponed several times since 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will run until August 26.
The NPT, which the 191 signatories review every five years, aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, promote complete disarmament and promote co-operation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
At the last review conference in 2015, the parties were unable to reach agreement on substantive issues.
The recent meeting comes as concerns are rising about the spread of nuclear technology, especially in Iran and North Korea, and China's rapid expansion of its nuclear arsenal.
While five leading nuclear powers are among the 191 states party to the pact, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea are not.
For his part, President Vladimir Putin insisted that Russia remained faithful to the treaty's "letter and spirit" and that there could be "no winners" in a nuclear war, according to the Kremlin.
Preventing nuclear war
"The NPT has reduced the risk of a devastating nuclear war, and further reduction of that risk must be a priority for all NPT states parties and for this Review Conference," the US-France-Britain statement said.
They said that Iran, currently in negotiations to limit its nuclear development, "must never develop a nuclear weapon," and called on North Korea to halt its nuclear-related tests and launches.
In a separate statement US President Joe Biden called on Russia and China to demonstrate their commitment to limiting nuclear arms.
Russia should demonstrate its willingness to renew a separate US-Russian nuclear arms reduction pact, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), when it expires in 2026, Biden said.
"My administration is ready to expeditiously negotiate a new arms control framework to replace New START," he said.
"But negotiation requires a willing partner operating in good faith. And Russia's brutal and unprovoked aggression in Ukraine has shattered peace in Europe and constitutes an attack on fundamental tenets of international order."
China meanwhile has a responsibility "to engage in talks that will reduce the risk of miscalculation and address destabilising military dynamics", said Biden.
"There is no benefit to any of our nations, or for the world, to resist substantive engagement on arms control and nuclear non-proliferation," Biden said.
"The health of the NPT has always rested on meaningful, reciprocal arms limits between the United States and Russian Federation. Even at the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were able to work together to uphold our shared responsibility to ensure strategic stability," Biden said.
"The world can be confident that my administration will continue to support the NPT and seek to strengthen the nonproliferation architecture that protects people everywhere."
A misunderstanding could spark nuclear destruction, UN Secretary-General António Guterres also warned Monday.
Citing Russia's war with Ukraine and tensions on the Korean peninsula and in the Middle East, Guterres said at the opening of the NPT conference he feared that crises "with nuclear undertones" could escalate.
"Today, humanity is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation," Guterres told the review conference.
"We have been extraordinarily lucky so far. But luck is not a strategy. Nor is it a shield from geopolitical tensions boiling over into nuclear conflict," he added, calling on nations to "put humanity on a new path towards a world free of nuclear weapons".
The conference is "a chance to strengthen" the treaty and "make it fit for the worrying world around us", he said.
"Eliminating nuclear weapons is the only guarantee they will never be used," the secretary-general implored.
"Almost 13,000 nuclear weapons are now being held in arsenals around the world. All this at a time when the risks of proliferation are growing and guardrails to prevent escalation are weakening," Guterres added.