ATHENS (Reuters) - Britain urged its European Union partners on Friday to press ahead with preparing tough economic sanctions against Russia, saying large numbers of Russian forces remained on Ukraine's eastern border and there had been only a "token" withdrawal.
"We haven't seen real de-escalation by Russia and therefore Europe must not relax in preparing a third tier of sanctions and making sure we continue to have a strong and united response," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters as he arrived for a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Athens.
He was referring to trade and economic measures the EU has threatened to take against Russia after its annexation of Crimea if it moves into southern and eastern Ukraine.
At the two-day meeting in the Greek capital, the ministers will discuss ways the European Union can help Kiev overcome its conflict with Moscow and debate how to change the bloc's approach towards its neighbours in light of the Ukraine crisis.
They will also look how the EU can help Kiev benefit from its 11-billion-euro (9 billion pounds) aid package announced in recent weeks.
Hague said it was too early for the EU's 28 governments to bolster sanctions against Moscow. "But they have to be ready because the situation remains very dangerous," he said.
His German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said tougher economic measures against Russia were not on the agenda in Athens, reflecting, in part, concerns among some EU capitals about the economic cost of such moves.
"We did not talk about sanctions today," he told reporters after the first day of talks. "At the moment we don't have any plans for another round of sanctions but rather the difficult challenge of helping Ukraine on its way forward so that it is capable of surviving in the future. That is a long way."
Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula has brought Europe and Russia into their biggest conflict since the Cold War and raises questions about the bloc's long-term policy towards Moscow and about the EU's ability to support stability in the region.
Overhauling the bloc's policy towards former Soviet republics and countries in north Africa and the Middle East will be one of the main challenges facing its new foreign policy chief, to be chosen to replace Briton Catherine Ashton later this year.
The EU is planning to spend more than 15 billion euros on supporting its immediate neighbours by the end of 2020. So far the goal has been to support democratic reforms in the hope of preventing turmoil spilling into Europe, in the wake of the "Arab Spring" uprisings in the Middle East and north Africa.
To the east, the EU's push for trade deals with former Soviet republics, meant to bring them closer into the EU's sphere of influence, has drawn ire from Moscow.
Russia prevented Armenia from moving ahead with an EU trade deal and persuaded former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich to change his mind about signing one. That caused popular protests in Kiev and the ousting of the pro-Russian president in February, after which Russia seized Crimea, which has a Russian-speaking majority and was formally annexed last month.
The EU and United States responded by imposing targeted sanctions against certain Russian and Ukrainian individuals.
"We need a fresh start, we need a policy that acknowledges that Russia will be an important presence," said Michael Leigh, a senior advisor with the German Marshall Fund think-tank in Brussels.
"It is normal that these countries have close relations with the EU and with Russia and we should drop our push to make them adopt EU values wholesale."
For now, the EU will want to help Ukraine implement an aid package agreed with the International Monetary Fund and ensure that a May 25 presidential election is successful despite tensions with Moscow.
"There are several things we can do," said Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans. "We need to take a closer look at the IMF programme and see how the EU can create success with the IMF."
(Additional reporting by Tom Korkemeier in Athens; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Dan Grebler)