Ukraine is gaining ground in its counter offensive - NATO's Stoltenberg

NATO Summit in Vilnius

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Ukraine is making progress with a counter offensive started in June to reclaim territory seized by Russia, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday, even though it was slow going due to Russian fortifications and minefields.

"The Ukrainians are gradually gaining ground...They have been able to breach the defensive lines of the Russian forces, and they are moving forward," Stoltenberg told lawmakers in remarks at the European Parliament.

Since launching its offensive, Kyiv has struggled to break through entrenched Russian lines and has faced growing criticism in Western media of concentrating forces in the wrong places.

With Moscow's stretched military resources and dissent in the ranks, however, both sides have measured recent successes by taking control of tiny villages or small pockets of land.

Stoltenberg said it had to be expected that the offensive would be advancing only slowly.

"No one ever said that this was going to be easy," he noted. "Hardly any time in history we have seen more mines on the battlefield than we are seeing in Ukraine today. So it was obvious that this was going to be extremely difficult."

Ukrainian officials have said in the past week that their forces have managed to push past Russia's first line of defences but now confronted further lines in areas where Moscow has had time to build up fortifications and minefields.

"They are making progress. Not perhaps as much as we hoped for but they are gaining ground gradually," said the NATO chief. "Some hundred meters per day, meaning that when the Ukrainians are gaining ground, the Russians are losing ground."

Praising the Ukrainian forces for their achievements on the battlefield, he added: "The starting point is that the Russian army used to be the second strongest in the world. And now the Russian army is the second strongest in Ukraine. That's quite impressive by Ukrainians."

(Reporting by Sabine Siebold and Marine Strauss; Editing by Benoit Van Overstraeten)