MUNICH -- The dangers of nuclear proliferation and talk of a “dire” global security situation dominated the opening of a high-profile security conference featuring world leaders and other top officials.
The battered relations between Russia and the West, as well as the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine, are also at the forefront of the annual Munich Security Conference that kicked off on February 16 and has drawn world leaders and top officials.
Addressing a conference hall in Munich packed with dignitaries, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of the risks emanating from North Korea’s nuclear activities, which have ratcheted up tensions between Pyongyang and Washington.
"For the first time since the end of the Cold War, we are now facing a nuclear threat, a threat of a nuclear conflict," Guterres told the gathering in the southern Bavarian city.
"I'm naturally referring to the development in relation to nuclear weapons and long-range missiles by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea -- the development made in total contradiction with the will of international community and in clear violation of several resolutions of the [UN] Security Council," Guterres added.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, meanwhile, noted in his address to the conference that Munich was closer to North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, than the U.S. capital, Washington.
He added that the international community must apply "maximum pressure" on North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Un, to give up any nuclear ambitions.
Kim has refused to give up development of nuclear missiles in spite of increasingly severe sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council.
Stoltenberg also called on Russia to address NATO concerns about what the United States has determined is Moscow’s violation of a landmark Cold War arms treaty.
Conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger opened the event by warning that the world has moved too close to a “major interstate conflict” and faces a “dire reality.”
“We have too many unresolved crises, instabilities, and conflicts,” Ischinger said.
Organizers said the agenda of the three-day conference places an emphasis on the European Union's role in the world as well as the bloc's relations with Moscow and Washington, whose leaders are not slated to attend.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who used his lone appearance at the conference, in 2007, to excoriate the United States for what he portrayed as its dangerous and destabilizing role in the world, is dispatching Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Munich.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, and national security adviser H.R. McMaster are among those to represent Washington at the conference.
Ukraine Looms Large
The war between Russia-backed separatists and Kyiv's forces in eastern Ukraine also looms large in Munich.
Both the U.S. special envoy for the conflict in Ukraine, Kurt Volker, and his Russian counterpart, Vladislav Surkov, last month offered guardedly optimistic assessments of their recent talks on a possible UN peacekeeping mission to end the fighting, which has killed more than 10,300 since April 2014.
Volker, who is set to attend the Munich conference, recently noted more "openness" from the Russian side on the issue but said he conveyed to Surkov "a very strong sense of disappointment and frustration in Washington that Russia has done absolutely nothing to end the conflict, or to withdraw its forces."
Former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who currently serves as an adviser to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, is set to present Volker and other officials in Munich with a report he commissioned urging a UN force of some 20,000 peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine.
Poroshenko, who delivered a fiery speech at the conference on February 16 denouncing what he called Russia’s “world hybrid war,” spoke by telephone with Putin earlier this week.
Poroshenko told reporters in Kyiv on February 15 that the two leaders also discussed the prospects for UN peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine, as well as the Minsk accords -- September 2014 and February 2015 cease-fire pacts that have failed to hold.
Peace talks in the so-called Normandy Format -- consisting of Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine -- had been planned on the sidelines of the conference for February 16. But they were called off over what the German Foreign Ministry described as scheduling conflicts.
It was not immediately clear if the meeting would be rescheduled during the Munich conference.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin and Lavrov held talks on the sidelines of the conference on February 16, though Klimkin said the two diplomats were unable to reach an agreement on a possible UN peacekeeping force in eastern Ukraine
Trump’s administration has largely stayed the course of his predecessor’s hard line on Russia’s 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and backing of the separatists in eastern Ukraine, which both triggered U.S. and EU sanctions targeting Moscow.
But while Moscow continues to chafe over Western sanctions and the Trump administration insists it is taking a tough approach to Moscow, there have been signals that the two sides are trying to ratchet down tensions.
Trump in December publicly touted bilateral cooperation with Moscow that both the White House and the Kremlin said had prevented planned terrorist attacks in St. Petersburg. And three directors of Russia’s main intelligence and espionage agencies -- one of whom was hit with a U.S. travel ban over the Crimea annexation -- traveled to Washington last month for meetings with top officials there.
Trump also surprised and angered many in Washington by declining to announce new sanctions targeting Moscow in conjunction with congressionally mandated measures aimed at pressuring the Kremlin over Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine and Syria, its alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and other matters.
Russian officials, meanwhile, have responded cautiously to the confirmed deaths of multiple Russian mercenaries killed in Syria last week in a clash with U.S.-backed forces, largely avoiding the anti-American rhetoric that frequently permeates officialdom in Moscow.
Tensions heightened on the eve of the Munich conference however, as Washington joined Britain in blaming Russia for the massive NotPetya ransomware attack last year -- an accusation the Kremlin rejected.
The White House pledged “international consequences” in response to the hack.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, noted in the call with reporters this week that the Munich conference follows the Trump administration’s recent unveiling of its national defense and security strategies portraying China and Russia as “revisionist” powers and outlining an increased focus on “great power competition.”
“Hearing more about what it means to make Russia and China our main national security emphases will, I think, be a question a lot of people will want to explore with Secretary Mattis and General McMaster, and anybody else from the U.S. delegation” in Munich, O’Hanlon said.
McMaster is scheduled to speak immediately following Lavrov’s speech on February 17.
Other world leaders and top officials scheduled to address the conference include British Prime Minister Theresa May, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Other global challenges set to be discussed at the Munich conference include defense cooperation in the EU and NATO, as well as the impact of technology on democracy.