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Zelenskyy’s New Defense Minister Known as Skilled, Tough Negotiator

Rustem Umerov speaks at the Ukrainian parliament which voted in favor of his confirmation as Ukraine's new defense minister, in Kyiv, Sept. 6, 2023.
Rustem Umerov speaks at the Ukrainian parliament which voted in favor of his confirmation as Ukraine's new defense minister, in Kyiv, Sept. 6, 2023.

At a critical moment in Ukraine’s counteroffensive, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has ordered a changing of the guard, naming Rustem Umerov as the country’s new defense minister.

On Wednesday, 338 of the 360 members of the Ukrainian parliament endorsed Umerov, a Crimean Tatar businessman, and a former parliamentarian. Observers see the replacement as part of Zelenskyy's efforts to address corruption in his administration as the Ukrainian military strives to retake southern Ukraine and areas near the Crimean Peninsula.

A long-time financial supporter of the Crimean Tatar community and father of three, Umerov, a practicing Muslim, became a Member of the Ukrainian Parliament with the Holos party in 2014, championing a reformist and progressive agenda.

Even before Russia's full-scale invasion, he played a pivotal role in negotiations with Moscow.

“He was part of the delegation that negotiated with Russia prior to the conflict. He played a key role in the grain deal due to his connections in Turkey, and our sources indicate his involvement in negotiations to secure the return of kidnapped Ukrainian children," said Sevgil Musaeva, editor of the Ukrainska Pravda newspaper.

In an interview with Euronews in April 2022, Umerov was resolute, affirming that Ukraine would not compromise on territorial issues. “We want our partners to understand that the internationally recognized borders of Ukraine are a red line for us. Nevertheless, we are ready to hear any possible solutions that do not endanger our territory, our independence, and our dignity,” Umerov said in the interview.

Umerov brings with him a strong resumé as a skilled negotiator and has played a prominent role in efforts to return Crimea to Ukrainian control.

He serves as a co-chairman of the Crimean Platform, an international coordinating mechanism that seeks to negotiate the reversal of Russia’s 2014 unilateral annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. He is a member of the group responsible for developing the Strategy for the De-occupation and Reintegration of Crimea and Sevastopol, initiated by the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine in 2020.

Umerov has also led efforts to exchange political prisoners from Crimea and, as a member of parliament, helped shape legislation to provide social support to political prisoners and their families.

“He is involved in a number of negotiations about the release of prisoners, as well as difficult negotiations about supplies of humanitarian support, weapons,” Tamila Tasheva, a prominent member of the Crimean Tatar community and the Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, told VOA, citing Umerov's strong communication skills and negotiating experience with Persian Gulf countries and Turkey.

In an interview with Ukrainska Pravda in October 2022, Umerov underscored his longstanding commitment to human rights, going back to when Ukraine was under pro-Russian governments before the Maidan Revolution of 2014.

“I was born in Uzbekistan, but I returned to Ukraine, where I engaged in activities related to European and NATO initiatives when they weren't popular,” Umerov told the newspaper.

Why now?

The change was necessary at a time when Ukrainians have grown wary of corruption scandals at the Defense Ministry, according to political analyst and director at Think Tank Politics, Mykola Davydiuk. In addition to being a problem for Ukraine, “it was a bad message to our foreign partners,” Davydiuk told VOA.

Rumors of Reznikov's impending replacement had been circulating for a year. In February 2023, Fox News quoted David Arakhamia, Ukraine's parliament majority leader as suggesting that Oleksiy Reznikov might be replaced, although the president chose not to act at the time, allowing then-Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov to remain in his position.

The decision to let Reznikov stay at the time came despite a shakeup at the Defense Ministry that included the resignations of Deputy Defense Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov and Deputy Prosecutor General Oleksiy Symonenko in late January of the same year amid allegations of fraud and a coverup involving the purchase military food rations and equipment at inflated prices.

The Defense Ministry denied any involvement in corrupt practices.

Last month, Ukrainian investigative reporter Mykhailo Tkach from Ukrainska Pravda exposed another scandal related to military procurement.

Reznikov himself does not face any charges in the corruption scandals.

But the more recent revelation sparked new outrage among Ukrainians and sent a negative signal to Western partners about retaining Reznikov in his role, according to Davydiuk, who points to several other reasons for the timing of Reznikov’s removal.

“The start of the new political season, some unofficial push for replacement from the western partners, and preparation for the visit U.N. General Assembly to New York at the end of this month,” Davydiuk said, are other reasons, at a time when President Zelenskyy needs to address the corruption allegations, regain his credibility, and restore his positive image in the eyes of Western partners.

As Ukraine slowly retakes territory and sets its eyes on reclaiming Crimea, the job of ensuring victory is now on the shoulders of Umerov.