Russia says its forces are advancing in all tactical directions in Ukraine

Russian Defence Minister Andrei Belousov attends a meeting of the CSTO Defence Ministers' Council in Almaty

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian forces are advancing in all tactical directions in Ukraine and have taken control of 28 settlements this month, Russia's defence minister said on Friday, saying Moscow would press ahead with what it calls its special military operation.

Speaking at a meeting of regional defence ministers in Kazakhstan, Defence Minister Andrei Belousov said Russian forces had captured a total area of 880 square kilometres (339 square miles) so far this year and had forced Ukrainian troops to fall back by eight to nine kilometres in key areas in the northeast Kharkiv region.

"Russia is continuing the special military operation and all its objectives will certainly be achieved. Russia's military grouping is forcing the enemy out of their positions," said Belousov.

"Advances are taking place in all tactical directions. Russian armed forces are systematically reducing the combat potential of the Ukrainian armed forces."

Russia casts its decision to send tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in February 2022 as a move to safeguard its own defence and that of Russian speakers. Kyiv and the West call it an illegal war of conquest and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has vowed to expel every Russian soldier from Ukrainian territory.

Belousov said Ukraine had this week launched its biggest missile attack on the bridge connecting Crimea, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014, to southern Russia. He said Russia had managed to shoot down all the missiles.

Belousov accused the NATO military alliance of escalating the conflict in Ukraine.

"NATO is building up its presence in eastern and central Europe and increasing the combat readiness and size of coalition forces. It is improving its military infrastructure and stepping up training and reconnaissance activities near our borders," he said.

"Everything is being done to prolong and escalate the armed conflict in Ukraine."

(Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Andrew Osborn)