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I’ve looked in the eyes of Zelensky’s battle-hardened new top commander ‘The Leopard’…he’ll defend Ukraine to the death

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A FORMER British army colonel who has stared into the eyes of Zelensky’s new commander-in-chief dubbed the “Snow Leopard” knows Ukraine is in safe hands.

Richard Kemp told The Sun that battle-hardened General Oleksandr Syrskyi will stop at nothing to defend the war-weary nation against the new Russian onslaught.

Ukraine's new commander-in-chief Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi - a hardened warrior who has overseen most of Ukraine's major battlefield victories

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Ukraine’s new commander-in-chief Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi – a hardened warrior who has overseen most of Ukraine’s major battlefield victoriesCredit: Avalon.red
Colonel Richard Kemp said he is a 'forceful commander' who will steer Ukraine through the 'tough times' ahead

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Colonel Richard Kemp said he is a ‘forceful commander’ who will steer Ukraine through the ‘tough times’ aheadCredit: AFP
Zelensky is pictured shaking hands with Gen Valerii Zaluzhnyi as he announced his sacking on Thursday

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Zelensky is pictured shaking hands with Gen Valerii Zaluzhnyi as he announced his sacking on ThursdayCredit: Alamy

On Thursday, President Zelensky confirmed the sacking of Ukraine’s hugely popular commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi in favour of Syrskyi.

And as Ukraine gears up to face a renewed Russian offensive as the war drags painfully towards its third year, Kemp believes he is the “forceful commander” it needs.

Colonel Kemp said: “Like predecessor Zaluzhnyi, will devote every sinew to his country’s defence.”

It followed months of rumours of a potential rift growing between the president and his hugely popular Gen Zaluzhnyi, who had led Ukraine’s military since before the war.

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Last week, Zelensky revealed he was considering replacing a number of senior officials in his war cabinet, stating: “A reset is necessary.”

Announcing his decision yesterday, he declared high command needed to be “renewed” but Zaluzhnyi could “remain on the team”.

The embattled leader thanked his military chief for defending Ukraine and said they had a “frank conversation” about the changes needed in the army.

Keir Giles, senior fellow at Chatham House’s Russia programme, told The Sun: “It was a very bold move.”

He did not doubt Zelensky had “sound reasons” – whatever they may be – to remove a man that was “respected and admired across the population and armed forces”.

Zaluzhnyi had achieved an almost mythic status, Giles said, “after almost two years defending his country when many thought it was impossible”.

However, Zelensky likely “felt a change of direction and strategy was needed. It signals a change in an approach to the war,” he added.

Zelensky called Syrskyi “the most experienced Ukrainian commander” and said he would be announcing his new leadership team in coming days.

Watch President Zelensky’s Exclusive interview with The Sun’s Jerome Starkey

But who is the man taking over the defence of Ukraine?

Colonel Kemp has met both Ukraine’s now former commander-in-chief and his successor.

He said: “Zaluzhnyi was a very, very popular and a very, very capable general.

“But I’ve also met Syrskyi and I would say the same of him. He may not enjoy the same level of popularity, but he’s a very capable general.

“He is a forceful commander who will resist any efforts by his allies to drive him down any path he judges against. As a general he is hugely professional and a driven man.”

Kemp added: “He is clearly very intelligent, very focused, and very confident.”

Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi has led Ukraine’s ground forces since 2019.

He previously commanded Ukrainian troops fighting a Moscow-backed insurgency in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions that began in 2014, and earned the call sign “Snow leopard”.

Since the full-scale invasion, Syrskyi has overseen some of Ukraine’s mightiest battlefield victories.

“Although trained in the rigidly centralised Soviet command system he implemented NATO devolved command methods in the Ukrainian forces which made a major contribution to Ukraine’s successes in 2022,” Kemp said.

The father-of-two took charge of the defence of Kyiv at the start of the war and was named a “Hero of Ukraine”, the country’s highest honour.

He then led his troops on a hugely successful surprise counteroffensive into Kharkiv Oblast in the summer of 2022, liberating the city and retaking swaths of land to the east and southeast.

Syrskyi has since run all military operations in eastern Ukraine, where plenty of the bloodiest battles of the war continue to be fought.

Early last year, he led Ukraine’s defence of the gateway eastern city of Bakhmut, where thousands of soldiers on both sides were killed in scenes likened to the Somme in the first world war.

When observers questioned if the sheer scale of death was worth it, Syrskyi said that by holding the line at Bakhmut, his troops had damaged Russia’s overall war effort by tying down Wagner Group fighters.

For months on end, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s brutal mercenary army was stuck battling for the small, but highly symbolic city – throwing troops into meat-grinder assaults and racking up extraordinary losses.

The drawn-out battle is believed to have sapped much of Russia’s eastern strength last winter and saved other areas along the frontline from the wrath of Wagner.

General Syrskyi is frequently pictured right at the front – getting down and dirty with his troops to raise morale.

He admitted last year that he sleeps less than four-and-a-half hours a night.

Zelensky talks to Syrskyi, a commander who was instrumental in the Battle of Kyiv and the liberation of Kharkiv

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Zelensky talks to Syrskyi, a commander who was instrumental in the Battle of Kyiv and the liberation of KharkivCredit: Alamy
Ukraine is at a 'critical point', Kemp said

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Ukraine is at a ‘critical point’, Kemp saidCredit: AP
The Sun's man Nick Parker shakes hands with Gen Syrskyi in 2022

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The Sun’s man Nick Parker shakes hands with Gen Syrskyi in 2022Credit: Doug Seeburg
Colonel Kemp believes Syrskyi is a very capable commander who will defend Ukraine against all odds

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Colonel Kemp believes Syrskyi is a very capable commander who will defend Ukraine against all oddsCredit: Wikipedia

‘Critical point’

“Ukraine is now at a critical point,” Colonel Kemp said as he feared the country will face many “tough days ahead”.

“Russia’s got the initiative at the moment. Ukraine is now back in a position where it has to fight a defensive war.

“For the time being they’re going to be in defensive mode, that’s really the only option that Ukraine has at the moment. They don’t really have the capacity to launch a new offensive.

“Syrskyi will be overseeing those defensive measures that are required probably for much of the rest of this year.”

The retired army officer said Kyiv faces two major issues – chronic shortages in weapons and munitions and shortages in military manpower.

Kemp said it’s up to Ukraine’s political leadership to sort out the former and lobby Western nations to provide the military aid they desperately need.

However, the issue of new recruits will fall down Gen Syrskyi. “They’ve taken a very large number of casualties and they probably need to expand their mobilisation.”

It will prove an unpopular move and one Syrskyi will have to navigate carefully, Kemp explained.

Since October, Russia has been aggressively and relentlessly trying to break through Ukraine’s frozen eastern frontline – the centre stage of its costly, but brutal winter offensive.

Now, that offensive could reach its climax as Putin is desperate to secure a significant victory before the rubber-stamp elections in March that are all but certain to secure his brutal reign over Russia until at least 2030.

Roughly 40,000 troops, 500 tanks and hundreds of howitzer artillery guns are currently poised to unleash hell on the eastern city of Kupyansk.

But Kyiv knows that Kupyasnk must hold as it is a major gateway city to Ukraine’s second largest urban centre, Kharkiv.

A significant chunk of Kharkiv – where plenty of the war’s most brutal battles have been waged – would be the perfect election-day gift for the ageing ruler.

Colonel Kemp said: “I think it’s going to be a very tough time for Ukraine because Russia’s built up very significant manpower.

“It’s built up huge reserves of munitions, rockets,  artillery shells and all forms of munitions.

“It’s gonna be hugely challenging for Ukraine unless it can somehow secure the supplies it needs from the West.”

His comments come as Ukraine struck another Russian oil refinery deep inside Russia in a kamikaze drone attack as fires raged in Moscow.

Footage shows the Ilsky plant ablaze in the Krasnodar region where giant explosions triggered an inferno.

And in Moscow the roofs of three six-story buildings near the Airport metro station were ablaze in a mysterious fire engulfing 43,000 square feet – the largest residential blaze in the city since the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

The blitz came on the same night President Putin’s much-hyped interview with US TV anchor Tucker Carlson was released – his first interview with Western media since his troops invaded Ukraine.

Carlson, 54, who has long been adored by Russian state media, treated the world last night to what he claims to be an “unedited” interview with the Russian president.

The news host sold it as a means for the American public to see the “truth” of the Ukraine war after two years of what he blasted as “one-sided” narratives fed by Western media.

However, instead Putin sat down to weave yet another baseless web of lies, launching a lengthy tirade about Russian history, before laying into Nato and threatening to propel the world towards global catastrophe.

The Russian tyrant boasted about Russia’s ‘unstoppable’ weapons, threatened World War 3 and blamed Boris Johnson for the war in Ukraine.

Putin emerged “dominant” and “at ease” in the face of a “fawning and gullible” Carlson, according to a body language expert.

Patrick Stewart told The Sun that “unprepared” schoolboy-like TV host Carlson failed to put up any fight as the Russian tyrant waged a “mental battle of attrition”.

Mysterious fires raged in Moscow on Thursday night - just as Ukraine destroyed an oil refinery deep inside Russia

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Mysterious fires raged in Moscow on Thursday night – just as Ukraine destroyed an oil refinery deep inside RussiaCredit: East2West
More footage of the burning residential building

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More footage of the burning residential buildingCredit: Reuters
Local residents stand among debris of a residential building destroyed by a Russian missile attack in Donetsk region

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Local residents stand among debris of a residential building destroyed by a Russian missile attack in Donetsk regionCredit: AFP
The ruinous landscape inside the Ukrainian eastern city of Avdiivka, which is being pummelled by Russian forces

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The ruinous landscape inside the Ukrainian eastern city of Avdiivka, which is being pummelled by Russian forcesCredit: Reuters

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