Who Is Rustem Umerov, Zelensky’s Pick for Ukraine Defense Minister?

Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS
Rustem Umerov, head of the country’s main privatisation fund, attends a meeting in the president’s office, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine June 29, 2023.

A year and a half into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has named a new defense minister: Rustem Umerov, a Crimean Tatar who rose through the private sector and has played a key role in some of the war’s highest-stakes negotiations.

Umerov’s appointment, which Parliament will need to formalize in the days ahead, follows the resignation of Oleksii Reznikov, who took the role in November 2021. The cabinet-level shake-up comes amid a wide-ranging crackdown on graft as Ukraine seeks to project to its Western backers a hard line on the issue.

Reznikov has not been charged in any corruption cases and Zelensky has not accused him of malfeasance. High-profile allegations of graft have plagued the Defense Ministry, however, during the war.

Ukraine’s defense minister oversees billions in weapons and other military aid sent by Ukraine’s allies. Umerov has a reputation as a skilled negotiator and anti-corruption campaigner. But he is set to take the reins of an institution under scrutiny over corruption allegations and a slow-moving counteroffensive in Ukraine’s southeast.

Who is Rustem Umerov?

Upon parliamentary approval, Umerov would leave his position as the head of Ukraine’s main privatization agency, the State Property Fund, which he has run for a year. There, he gained praise for instituting massive audits and weeding out alleged corruption and misappropriation of funds.

Umerov told Forbes in an October interview that his team acted “exclusively for the benefit of Ukraine” – and that those with “hidden motives” should find a new job.

Umerov is a member of the pro-European Holos party, not Zelensky’s Servant of the People party. He has a wide network of sources and has been part of high-stakes negotiations.

A month into the invasion of Ukraine, Umerov was part of the Ukrainian delegation that held early talks with Russia. (Peace talks have since stalled.) He helped negotiate the Black Sea grain deal – from which Moscow withdrew in July – along with prisoner exchanges. He joined Zelensky for a visit to Saudi Arabia in May and first lady Olena Zelenska in the United Arab Emirates in March.

Umerov’s diverse background reflects Ukraine’s multicultural history.

Umerov was born in Samarkand, then part of the Soviet Union, to a Crimean Tatar family originally from the Crimean Peninsula but deported by the Soviets in the 1940s. Crimean Tatars are a Turkic Sunni Muslim minority, among the many minorities the Soviets repressed.

Russia illegally seized the territory from Ukraine and annexed it 2014.

Umerov has called on his Crimean Tatar roots in his effort to build Ukraine’s diplomatic and economic ties to Persian Gulf states and Turkey. “We also show that Ukrainian Muslims are fighting for the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine, he told Forbes. “This emotional factor is important for the OIC countries in which the Russian narrative prevails.”

Since 2020, Umerov has co-chaired a task force to end Crimea’s occupation. He returned to Crimea with his family in 1991 after the Soviet Union collapsed. He told Forbes he was last there in 2014 and he planned to return “after we liberate all the occupied territories.”

Umerov is a polyglot, having learned Ukrainian, Tatar, Russian, Turkish and English at boarding school, according to his press office.

What is the reaction to Umerov?

Vitaliy Shabunin, the head of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center, a nongovernmental organization, called Umerov’s nomination probably “the best decision of the president.”

“Umerov’s team at the State Property Fund did the impossible” in investigating graft, he said.

Tamila Tasheva, who heads the Kyiv-based Autonomous Republic of Crimea and is herself Crimean Tatar, said on Facebook that Umerov would be the first Crimean Tatar appointed a cabinet minister in Ukraine.

His nomination “is an important signal for Ukrainian society and all our citizens in Crimea that Ukraine will fight for Crimea until it is freed from Russian occupation,” she said. It “finally shuts down anyone’s attempts (including allies) to pressure us into surrendering Crimea.”

Some of Zelensky’s critics, however, raised concerns that Umerov lacks military expertise at a critical moment in the war. Ukrainian journalist Yuriy Butusov called Umerov “a man far from war” who “will have no action programs, no understanding of what to do.”

What challenges does Umerov face?

Reznikov resigned after months of mounting controversies and speculation that Zelensky would oust him.

Reznikov has not been charged in any ongoing corruption probes. But the ministry has been accused of purchasing food for soldiers at inflated prices and buying jackets for the military through a corruption scheme.

Reznikov has denied the accusations and told The Washington Post in a statement that because of his efforts to oust corruption in the ministry, “several high-ranking officials of the Ministry of Defense were removed from their posts and became subjects to investigation.”

Corruption was rampant in Ukraine before the war, and Zelensky has been keen to show Western allies that military aid is spent properly.

Ukraine is also under pressure over a slower-than-expected counteroffensive against Russian forces in the country’s southeast. While Ukraine has made some gains, forces have struggled to overcome Russia’s minefields and complex defensive lines.