KYIV — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s choice for the country’s new defense minister sends two clear signals to Ukraine’s allies and adversaries: Kyiv is serious about cleaning up corruption, and steadfast about regaining Crimea from Russian control.
Rustem Umerov, whom Zelenskyy has put forward to replace Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, is a Crimean Tatar with deep business and political experience, including chairing Ukraine’s commission monitoring international financial and military aid to the country’s war effort. As head of the State Property Fund since last year, he has revitalized the country’s privatization efforts.
The defense ministry “needs new approaches,” Zelenskyy said in dismissing Reznikov, whose ministry has been plagued by corruption allegations. Reznikov himself hasn’t been implicated, but the controversy has tainted the ministry.
Umerov, 41, will become the first Muslim and Crimean Tatar to gain such a high post in the Ukrainian government. In addition to his financial acumen, Umerov’s appointment will mean a deeper integration of the Crimean Tatar community into decision-making in Kyiv. It also clearly indicates Ukraine’s adamant determination to take Crimea back.
The planned change is the highest-level shake-up in Zelenskyy’s administration since Russia launched its all-out invasion in February 2022. Zelenskyy called on the Ukrainian legislature to approve the decision as soon as possible.
“The ministry needs new approaches and other formats of interaction with both the military and society at large,” Zelenskyy said late Sunday. “Autumn is a time for strengthening,” he added.
Umerov, founder of investment company ASTEM and a Ukrainian MP, has been one of the most prominent advocates of Ukraine’s re-occupation of Crimea, illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. In addition to working as a head of the State Property Fund since 2022, he has been actively taking part in international negotiations, including with Russia.
“He is a strong manager with a strategic vision, who has well-established international connections in the U.S., the European Union, the Arab world, Turkey, and the countries of Central Asia,” said Refat Chubarov, chairman of the Mejlis, the political representative body of the Crimean Tatars in exile.
“Such a high appointment is a good signal for Crimean Tatars’ integration into Ukrainian government structures, and also a great responsibility for the native community,” Chubarov told POLITICO.
Umerov’s prospective appointment was praised by anti-corruption advocates, who have been critical of Reznikov for a string of army procurement corruption scandals at the defense ministry.
“I was pleasantly surprised by Rustem’s role in non-public advocacy of weapons for Ukraine. He often very quietly did the things that had failed in the Defense Ministry during the last year and a half,” Daria Kaleniuk, acting director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, a Kyiv-based watchdog, said in a statement.
Kaleniuk also praised Umerov’s performance as the head of the State Property Fund. Kyiv raised record proceeds from selling small state assets in the first quarter of 2023 despite Moscow’s invasion, Umerov said in May. So far this year, “more than 2,000 entrepreneurs got the opportunity for business development,” Umerov said in a report in late August.
“We saw only positive results in one of the country’s once most corrupt sewers,” Kaleniuk added.