BERLIN (Reuters) - German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel plans to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin early next week to discuss ties between the two nations amid growing policy divisions within Germany's ruling right-left coalition, a newspaper reported on Tuesday.
Gabriel's Social Democrats (SPD) generally back a more conciliatory stance towards Russia than Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative bloc. Her office was aware of Gabriel's planned visit, the Rheinische Post said.
An economy ministry spokeswoman said she could not confirm the report.
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, also a Social Democrat, stirred strong reactions across Europe on Monday after he said the European Union should phase out sanctions against Russia to reward progress in the Ukraine peace process.
Steinmeier also said NATO exercises in eastern Europe could worsen tensions with Russia, warning against what he called "saber-rattling and shrill war cries".
Gabriel on Monday had spoken in support of Steinmeier, while NATO and U.S. officials criticized his remarks.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told Reuters on Monday that the EU should keep sanctions in place, and defended NATO's plans to beef up its presence in eastern Europe as necessary to respond to Russia's aggressive actions.
Gabriel's last visit to Moscow was in October 2015, while Merkel last visited Moscow in May 2015.
Reporting by Gernot Heller; Writing by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Louise Ireland