In a striking move seen principally as an effort to shed corruption, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has chosen to replace his defence chief. The appointment of Rustem Umerov, a Muslim Crimean Tatar, sends a clear signal of Ukraine’s seriousness in reclaiming the territory of Crimea — annexed by Russia in 2014.
Rumours regarding the potential replacement of Oleksii Reznikov, the defence minister since November 2021, have been swirling for quite some time. Although not personally implicated in any misconduct, Reznikov stood by Zelensky’s side as corruption seeped into his ministry from the commencement of the Russian invasion.
Accusations related to military procurement scandals and bribery within enforceable centres have tainted Reznikov’s image amongst Ukrainians, leaving society in want of a morale lift amid a less-than-expected striking invasion. That’s where Rustem Umerov strides in.
Umerov, a 41-year-old public servant, most recently led Ukraine’s State Property Fund. He is well-recognized for his negotiation experience with Russia and for effectually executing prisoner exchanges. A Crimean Tatar born in exile, he has been actively involved in restoring the cultural identity and global positioning of this ethnic community.
Perhaps his most significant point of distinction within Ukrainian circles is a clean slate – not a single accusation of corruption, embezzlement, or profiteering. Umerov made his debut into politics in 2019 with the reformist party “Holos”, eventually stepping out to embrace his governmental responsibilities. Prior to his political endeavours, Umerov held roles within the corporate sector, spanning the telecommunications and investment fields.
With his roots firmly planted in Crimean Tatar heritage, a crucial aspect of Umerov’s identity is the contribution they can make to Ukraine’s determined effort to reclaim Crimea.
Crimean Tatars, the native Turkic inhabitants of the Crimean peninsula, were erroneously accused of Nazi collaboration during WWII and subsequently exiled to Central Asia by the Soviet military. Their journey back home has spanned decades, including that of Umerov’s family.
For several years, Umerov served as an advisor to the recognised leader of the Crimean Tatars, Mustafa Dzhemilev. He delivered a poignant declaration of the Soviet oppression in a 2021 Liga.net article. Although condemning Russia’s annexation, Umerov worked on negotiating the release of crimean tatars detained since 2014, aiming to bring them back to Ukraine.
Recently, in an interview following the commencing of the full-scale invasion in 2022, Umerov affirmed his resolution to find a diplomatic solution to the brutal assault.
To confirm his new choice of defence minister, President Zelensky broadcast a national address on Sunday where he highlighted the need for new engagement methods towards the military and wider society.
While some may deem it unrealistic for Ukraine to recapture its pre-2014 borders, including the peninsula, the appointment of a native Crimean, like Umerov, to a central role in this mission conveys Kyiv’s objectives unambiguously.