No Putin Encore at Munich Conference

The annual Munich Conference on Security Policy is to kick off Friday with a welcome dinner in the Bavarian capital -- but without the man who stole last year's show.

President Vladimir Putin, who delivered a blistering speech to last year's conference in which he castigated U.S. foreign policy as reckless and dangerous, will not attend this year's event, which runs through Sunday.

Instead, the Russian delegation will be led by First Deputy Prime Minster Sergei Ivanov, who last year was considered a front-runner to succeed Putin before the president publicly endorsed Dmitry Medvedev in December.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Arizona Senator John McCain -- an outspoken critic of Putin and the leading contender for the Republican nomination in the U.S. presidential election -- are also scheduled to attend.

An aide to Ivanov, speaking upon condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said bilateral meetings with the U.S. officials were planned but that he could not give any details because preparations were still ongoing.

Horst Teltschik, the conference organizer, said as many as 100 bilateral meetings would be held during the three-day conference, and that Ivanov would have the opportunity to discuss the controversial U.S. missile defense plan with the right people. "After all, the foreign ministers of both Poland and the Czech Republic will be here," Teltschik said.

The United States is discussing placing elements of a missile-defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Washington says the shield is purely a defensive measure against "rogue states" like Iran, Moscow maintains that it poses a potential threat to its own security.

In his address to the conference last year, Putin, in an unusually harsh public rebuke of the United States, said Washington had "overstepped its national borders in every way" and that its plans for the shield "could provoke nothing less than the beginning of a nuclear era."

On Sunday, Ivanov, together with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and Romanian Foreign Minister Adrian Cioroianu, will chair a discussion called: "Where is Russia Going?"

The Russian delegation will also include Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko and Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the State Duma's International Relations Committee.

Many of the guests, including NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, are expected to come straight from a meeting of the alliance's defense ministers in Vilnius.

Russia's new representative to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said by telephone from Brussels that he had been invited by Ivanov to attend and that he was looking forward to the conference.

"Here we can have open talks and tell each other what we like and don't like," said Rogozin, a former State Duma deputy who developed a strong following among nationalist voters before falling out with the Kremlin last year.

Speaking by telephone from his Bavarian home in Rottach-Egern, Teltschik, the conference organizer, said Putin's fiery speech last year had largely been misunderstood.

"He basically outlined how long-term relations between Russia and the West can be formed," said Teltschik, a longtime foreign policy aide to former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. "The enormous resonance of the speech only showed that there is enormous need to talk with Moscow. I want to continue the debate."

Newly re-elected Serbian President Boris Tadic will open the conference with a speech at Friday's dinner.