The annual three-day security conference in Munich is traditionally a place where world leaders talk about -- and defend before each other -- their plans for making the world a more peaceful place.
That makes it an unusual event in the world of foreign policy -- a forum where leaders talk frankly between themselves, and the media and the public can listen in.
The event begins this evening, with the participants meeting over dinner. But the proceedings start in earnest on February 10, when Merkel and Putin make keynote speeches.Spotlight On Russia, Energy Security
This is the first time the Russian president has attended the conference, and the questioning that follows his speech is likely to be lively.
Russia is today the focus of several of Europe's security concerns -- especially over energy supplies.
Putin has pursued a policy of raising energy costs for neighboring former Soviet republics over recent years. And Moscow's showdowns with Ukraine, Georgia, and Belarus have all underlined Russia's potential to also use energy as a lever in its relations with Western Europe, another major consumer.
The Russian president defends his actions as simple market economics. "It is obvious that real energy security is only achievable through the mutual responsibility of all participants in the energy chain," he said in Moscow last month. "In saying this, I mean all forms of energy -- oil, gas, and nuclear energy. For our part, with the aim of the unconditional implementation of this approach, we are taking measures to move relations in the energy sphere with all countries onto a transparent market foundation, free of any political opportunism."
But many Western policymakers worry Moscow is using energy precisely as a political tool. How Putin will answer their expected sharp questioning could be a highlight of the conference.EU, NATO Concerns
Among other key participants will be new U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, and EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana.
Other subjects for discussion on February 10 are how the EU can build regional security and whether NATO should accept global responsibilities. Likely topics are Kosovo, where the EU expects to play a larger future role, and Afghanistan, where NATO now has over 30,000 soldiers deployed.
NATO's secretary-general is likely to use the conference to repeat his call for the alliance to restructure for a global role. That includes exploring close partnerships with countries like Japan and Australia that are far from NATO's original trans-Atlantic base.
De Hoop Scheffer pressed for "transformation" this way at last year's NATO summit in Riga (November 28):
"Afghanistan is NATO's first mission outside Europe but it will certainly not be the last, so we have no time to waste pushing forward with NATO's military transformation," de Hoop Scheffer said the NATO summit in Riga on November 28.
Other Western leaders are likely to join vigorously in the debate over NATO's future. Japanese and Australian delegations will also be at the Munich meeting, offering a chance to gauge their interest in partnerships.
The conference wraps up on February 11 with remarks expected from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.
Conference host Horst Teltschik told a press conference in Munich on January 15 that the meeting is intended to produce "very lively and critical discussions." He added: "Politics is made of people. The better they know each other, the easier they can deal with each other."
The annual Munich conference dates back to 1962, at the height of the Cold War, when it was founded by German publisher Ewald von Kleist as the Wehrkundetagung (Security Conference). It was later renamed the international Conference on Security Policy.