In his evening address on Sunday Sept. 3 President Volodymyr Zelensky announced that he wished to replace his defense minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, with the head of the State Property Fund, Rustem Umerov, who he sees as a safe pair of hands. The choice of a Crimean Tartar, bearing in mind his previous roles, may have more significance than just a need for “new approaches and other formats of interaction.”

The departure of Reznikov was confirmed earlier on Monday when he posted his letter of resignation on “X” (formerly Twitter). There had been rumors that he would be moved aside for several weeks, following a series of corruption scandals within his ministry. While no accusations were made against him, many felt that he should accept responsibility for what had happened on his watch. The President, in saying Reznikov had “been through more than 550 days of full-scale war,” suggested it was just time for him to rest.

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Who is the new defense minister (designate)?

Forty-one-year-old Rustem Enverovych Umerov, a Crimean Tatar, was born in Samarkand, Soviet Uzbekistan, where his family had been exiled along with 200,000 Tatars under Stalin. They moved back to Crimea when he was a child in the 1980s.

A successful businessman, he became actively involved in Crimean politics, acting as an advisor to Mustafa Dzhemilev, a Ukrainian parliamentarian and historic leader of Crimean Tatars. Following the 2014 illegal annexation of the peninsula by Russia he became co-chair of the “Crimea Platform” initiative and was heavily involved in high-profile negotiations for the release of prisoners and the evacuation of civilians from Crimea.

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In 2021, while attacking Russia’s 2014 invasion, he likened it to Stalin’s deportation of Crimean Tatars as “one of the greatest crimes of the Soviet regime. It was started by the tyrants in power at that time in order to exterminate an entire nation.”

Umerov was elected to the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s Parliament, as a member of the Holos (Voice) political party in 2019. In this capacity had worked behind the scenes in talks intended “to find [a] political and diplomatic resolution to this brutal invasion,” according to an interview with the BBC, shortly after Russia’s full-scale invasion.

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It was as a result of this experience that President Zelensky first engaged him to serve as an advisor on relations with Arab and Muslim states and then as a member of Ukraine’s delegations in negotiations with Russia, both in the first weeks of the war and in talks that established the now-suspended Black Sea grain export corridor.

Umerov was appointed to the State Property Fund post a year ago. The fund was established to oversee privatization of state industry which has been beset by corruption scandals since its inception in 1991. He seems to have excelled in this particularly tough role, which seems to have confirmed Zelensky’s trust in him and his ability to get things done.

In his Sunday night speech, the President, in calling on the Rada to support Umerov’s nomination said that [the Parliament] “knows this person well and Mr. Umerov does not need any additional introductions.”

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Why Umerov?

In addition to having proved himself as a capable politician, a talented negotiator and a safe pair of hands there may be other factors that have come in to play in the choice of Umerov as Ukraine’s minister of defense:

·    Putting a Crimean Tatar into the post sends a strong signal to Russia that the peninsula is Ukrainian and the illegal annexation will never be accepted as a fait accompli in any future negotiations. In May 2022 Umerov said in an interview with the Turkish Anadolu news Agency that “Donbas and Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia, are our red lines... We will not give up our people or our land.”

·    The longstanding historic and cultural links between Tatars and Turkey could be an added incentive for President Erdogan, who is starting talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on both resurrecting the Black Sea grain issue and potential peace talks, to resolve the impasse. In the same May 2022 interview, Umerov commented on Turkey’s humanitarian and diplomatic support to Ukraine: “Owing to Turkey’s support, we feel stronger at the negotiating table.”

·    With the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) having become involved in discussions about the war, with the 40 nation peace conference it held in May, appointing a Muslim as the minister may resonate with its interlocuters. Additionally, as Chairman of the State Property Fund he has had meetings with the KSA’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seeking advice on the future restoration and development of Ukraine was discussed.

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·    Umerov is viewed by many as “a hard man” because of the way he has dealt with corrupt individuals and entities in his present post and as such is likely to prove adept during negotiations to secure the continued, maximum support for military aid to Ukraine from its partners, particularly in the sensitive areas of long-range missiles.

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