Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s decision to replace his defense chief has been primarily viewed as an anti-corruption move. However, the appointment of Rustem Umerov, a Crimean Tatar and a Muslim, sends a strong signal that Ukraine is resolute about regaining control of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014.
Speculation regarding the replacement of Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister since November 2021, had been circulating for months. Although personally uninvolved in any wrongdoing, Reznikov, who has been alongside President Zelensky since the start of the Russian invasion, was perceived as unable to prevent corruption from infiltrating his ministry.
With military procurement scandals and allegations of bribery swirling around enlistment centers, Reznikov’s reputation had suffered in the eyes of the Ukrainian public, which needed a morale boost as the offensive progressed more slowly than expected.
Enter Rustem Umerov.
The 41-year-old has served as the head of Ukraine’s State Property Fund for the past year, primarily known for his role in negotiations with Russia and his success in organizing prisoner exchanges. Although not a complete unknown, he had also managed to stay out of the media spotlight and earned a reputation untarnished by allegations of corruption, embezzlement, or profiteering.
Umerov’s political career began in 2019 when he ran for parliament with the reformist “Holos” party. Later, he transitioned to a government role. Prior to that, he worked in the private sector, first in telecoms and later in investment. In 2013, he founded a charity program to support the training of Ukrainians at Stanford University in the United States.
However, his most defining characteristic is his Crimean Tatar heritage and the role it plays in Ukraine’s determined efforts to reclaim Crimea.
Crimean Tatars are the indigenous Turkic population of the Crimean peninsula. During World War II, they were unjustly accused of collaboration with the Nazis and forcibly deported to Central Asia by the Soviet army. Rustem Umerov’s family was among those deported, and he was born in exile in Uzbekistan. In the late 1980s, he, along with many other Crimean Tatars, was allowed to return to Crimea.
For years, Umerov advised Mustafa Dzhemilev, a historic leader of Crimean Tatars, and served as one of the delegates of the Qurultay, the Crimean Tatar Congress. He also co-chaired the Crimea Platform, an international diplomatic initiative focused on negotiations with Russia following its 2014 occupation of the peninsula.
In a 2021 piece for Liga.net, Umerov called the deportation of Crimean Tatars one of the greatest crimes of the Soviet regime, initiated to exterminate an entire nation. While he criticized Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, he also worked towards negotiating with Moscow to free several Crimean Tatars arrested since 2014 and bring them back to Ukraine.
In an interview with the BBC in 2022, shortly after the full-scale invasion began, Umerov expressed determination to find a political and diplomatic resolution to the brutal invasion.
In his televised address, President Zelensky confirmed his intent to seek parliamentary approval for Umerov’s appointment as the new defense minister. He emphasized the need for fresh approaches and new engagement methods with both the military and society.
While a full-scale military assault on Crimea may be distant, and some see Ukraine’s pre-2014 border aspirations, including Crimea, as unrealistic, Zelensky’s appointment of an indigenous Crimean signals a clear message: Kyiv is committed to achieving this objective.