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An experienced negotiator and a proud Crimean Tatar What the appointment of Ukraine’s new defense minister says about Kyiv’s evolving war strategy

Source: Meduza
State Property Fund of Ukraine / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry has a new leader for the first time since Russia’s full-scale invasion. After a recent series of corruption scandals at the agency, previous Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov resigned from his post at Zelensky’s request on September 4. His replacement, Rustem Umerov, is a Muslim and an advocate for the rights of Crimean Tatars. Though he has no military experience, Umerov does have connections in Turkey and several Arab countries, which could prove valuable as Kyiv seeks to convince largely neutral countries to take Ukraine’s side in the conflict. He’s also joined multiple rounds of peace talks with Russia (and may have been poisoned in the process). Meduza examines Umerov’s biography and shares insights from sources in Ukraine about the country’s new defense minister.

A member of the ‘Crimea lobby’

Rustem Umerov is 41 years old. He was born in Uzbekistan to a Muslim family of Crimean Tatars who had been deported by the Soviet authorities from the Crimean city of Alushta in 1944. The family returned to their native peninsula in the late 1980s.

After studying economics in college, Umerov started his career as a manager for the Ukrainian mobile operator Lifecell in 2004. In 2010, he entered the investment business, working as a managing director for ICG Investments and iCapital before starting his own investment firm, Astem, together with his brother, Aslan Omer Kyrymly.

According to the Ukrainian outlet New Voice, the brothers also founded the Astem Foundation, which has contributed funds to Stanford University’s Ukrainian Emerging Leaders Program, a fellowship for Ukrainian lawyers, businessmen, public figures, and entrepreneurs.

In 2007, Umerov helped create the Crimean Tatars’ Association, a nonprofit representing Crimean Tatars’ interests in Ukraine. From 2007 to 2019, he served as an advisor to longtime Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev.

In 2012, Umerov became a co-founder and board member of the Crimean International Business Association, and in the summer of 2021, he was elected co-chairman of the international summit Crimea Platform. Last year, he described the conference as an “international venue at which we’ll discuss the fate of our Ukrainian Crimea in the future.”

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Crimean Tatars under Russian occupation

‘I’m spoiled by my Ukrainian love of freedom’ In a bitter echo of Stalinist deportations, Russia's mobilization is forcing Crimean Tatars into exile

A source from the Ukrainian government who knows Umerov described the new minister to Meduza as a “representative of the new generation of the Crimean Tatar elites”: “These are guys in the Ukrainian government and business world whose fathers and grandfathers fought for their people’s rights. Like Mustafa Dzhemilev, for example.”

According to the source, other members of this group include Ukrainian First Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova, Permanent Ukrainian Presidential Representative in Crimea Tamila Tasheva, and several officials in the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. “It’s sort of like a lobby for Crimea and Crimean Platform,” he said. “They fight to ensure that Crimea will always remain part of Ukraine. It’s an important part of [Rustem Umerov’s] life and work.”

An experienced negotiator

In the spring of 2022, after the start of the full-scale war, Umerov took part in the Russia–Ukraine peace negotiations in Belarus and Turkey. On March 29, 2022, he attended a meeting in Istanbul where Kyiv offered “permanent neutrality” to Russia in exchange for international legal guarantees.

Umerov’s knowledge of Turkish and his links to Turkey came in handy during his talks with Russia, in which Ankara frequently served as a mediator, a source close to Ukraine’s security forces told Meduza. According to the source, Umerov managed to establish good relations with Turkey’s foreign minister (who previously served as its intelligence chief), Hakan Fidan.

Another source in the Ukrainian government said he has also heard about Umerov’s connections to Turkish politicians. Before branching into politics, Umerov was an investment advisor for the Turkish company Turkcell, Turkey’s leading mobile operator and owner of the Ukrainian company Lifecell, where Umerov began his career.

Poisoned at a peace negotiation?

In March 2022, at a meeting with a Russian delegation, Umerov was allegedly poisoned. According to investigative journalists at Bellingcat, the incident occurred at a round of negotiations late in the evening on March 3. The Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who took part in the talks in an unofficial capacity, and another participant who has not been named publicly were reportedly affected, as well.

“Later that night, the three members of the negotiating group returned to their apartment in Kyiv and felt the first symptoms, which included inflammation of the eyes and skin and piercing eye pain,” investigators said. The Wall Street Journal described similar symptoms.

Experts concluded that the symptoms were most likely the result of poisoning by unidentified chemical weapons, but definitively determining their cause was impossible because of the lack of equipment at the site. “The experts said the dosage and type of toxin used were likely insufficient to cause life-threatening damage and most likely were intended to scare the victims as opposed to cause permanent damage,” Bellingcat wrote.

Initially, Umerov denied having experienced poisoning symptoms, but he later confirmed it indirectly. “At the moment, everything is fine; there are no difficulties. I’m already working. I’m in action. At one point, there was something, but I can’t diagnose myself or express my personal opinion; it’s a delicate issue,” he said in an interview with the Ukrainian outlet New Voice in April 2022. After the apparent poisoning, Umerov temporarily suspended his participation in negotiations, according to the Russian investigative outlet Agentstvo.

In March 2023, Umerov joined Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, on a visit to the UAE and shortly afterward accompanied Volodymyr Zelensky to Saudi Arabia, according to Forbes Ukraine. He also helped organize talks between Zelensky and the Saudi authorities in July 2023, a source close to Ukraine’s security forces told Meduza.

Umerov’s many connections have made it possible for him to help the Ukrainian president’s office and its head, Andriy Yermak, to build a strategy for working with the Middle East and the Global South, according to a Ukrainian official who knows the new defense minister:

Thanks to Rustem, some very significant things have happened for Ukraine. This includes [prisoner] exchanges, Ukraine’s involvement in the fate of our Azov fighters, and President Zelensky’s participation in the [2023] Arab League Summit — a first for Ukraine. Furthermore, we understand the level of influence Russia has on these countries, and the [Ukrainian] president was allowed to participate despite that.

The official emphasized that Umerov has played a crucial role in establishing Ukraine’s bilateral relations with the Muslim world.

Additionally, the Ukrainian outlet Babel has reported that Umerov was involved in the Black Sea grain deal negotiations.

In September 2022, Umerov flew to Saudi Arabia during the large prisoner exchange there, according to a Meduza source close to Ukraine’s security forces. This is consistent with other sources’ accounts of Umerov’s international relationships, as Turkey and Saudi Arabia served as the deal’s mediators. A source familiar with the exchange process confirmed to Meduza that Umerov indeed “may have [flown] to Saudi Arabia as part of the exchange,” but the source did not elaborate.

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Vitaliy Shabunin, who heads the nonprofit Anti-Corruption Action Center, wrote about the exchange process on Facebook. “Since February 2022, Umerov — an important member of the group that conducts all of the closed negotiations over the release of POWs — has freed more than 2,000 of our people, including the Azovstal fighters,” explained Shabunin.

Umerov’s appointment as defense minister says a lot about Kyiv’s current approach to the war, a source in the Ukrainian government told Meduza. On one hand, they said, it shows how important Crimea still is for Ukraine. On the other hand, Umerov is among the most active proponents of Zelensky’s “peace formula” at international forums.

Zelensky first presented his “peace formula” to the leaders of the G20 in November 2022. The plan comprises 10 principles: nuclear, agricultural, and energy security; the release of all prisoners linked to the war; the restoration of Ukraine’s territory according to the borders agreed upon in 1991; the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine and the cessation of hostilities; the creation of a special tribunal to prosecute Russian war crimes; environmental protections; the prevention of further escalation; and a signed document confirming the end of the war. The “formula” was developed by the Ukrainian president’s office along with the country’s Foreign Ministry, and Rustem Umerov has helped promote it at international venues.

“Ukraine’s new defense minister is a good diplomat. He will actively recruit other states to support the Ukrainian ‘peace formula.’ First and foremost, he’ll recruit governments that haven’t defined their position on the war: the Global South, the Arab world, Africa, and Asia,” said a Ukrainian politician who spoke to Meduza. “I wouldn’t consider any of those things good news for Russia.”

Zelensky’s Crimea representative

‘For Russia, Crimea is just a military base’ Meduza’s interview with Tamila Tasheva, Ukraine’s new Presidential Representative in Crimea

Zelensky’s Crimea representative

‘For Russia, Crimea is just a military base’ Meduza’s interview with Tamila Tasheva, Ukraine’s new Presidential Representative in Crimea

A ‘strong manager’ who ‘brought in cash’

In 2019, Umerov was elected to Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada as a member of the Holos party. As a parliamentary deputy, he was actively involved in issues related to the economy and ethnic minorities and helped draft dozens of bills.

On September 7, 2022, the Verkhovna Rada appointed Umerov as the head of the State Property Fund, an executive agency responsible for state property’s privatization, leasing, and use. “The proposal [for me to lead the State Property Fund] came from the president during one of the reports on POWs and armaments,” Umerov said in an October 2022 interview with Forbes Ukraine.

According to Umerov, one of his main goals as the fund’s leader was to attract foreign investors in Ukraine, even with the war still raging. “Umerov is a strong manager who understands how systems work and how to build these systems. In his year as the head of the State Property Fund, he achieved major results, bringing in the kind of cash it hadn’t seen for decades — largely thanks to his business-minded approach. He found good investors and started selling [Ukrainian] assets,” a source in the Ukrainian government told Meduza.

In the source’s view, all of these qualities should help the country’s new defense minister continue the reforms he’s initiated, including the development of Ukraine’s recently created Defense Procurement Agency and the digitization of the Defense Ministry.

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Crimean Tatars under Russian occupation

‘We don’t have another motherland’ Nine years into Russian occupation and oppression, Crimean Tatars hold out hope for Ukraine’s return

A new kind of defense minister

Umerov’s appointment as Ukraine’s new defense minister would have been impossible if it weren’t for his “decent relationship” with Zelensky Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak, a source close to Ukraine’s security forces told Meduza. Support from Ukraine’s international partners has also played a role, and Umerov’s candidacy received active endorsements from public organizations and anti-corruption activists such as Vitaliy Shabunin and Daria Kalenyuk, who spoke about it with their Western partners, according to Meduza’s source.

“Umerov is a new kind of person for the [Ukrainian] Defense Ministry. He has no military training or experience in the ministry. But we’ll see,” a source close to the Ukrainian security forces told Meduza.

The source added that he doesn’t foresee Umerov’s appointment directly impacting the court of the war: “In any case, under a law on security forces passed in 2018, only a civilian can become the head of the Defense Ministry.”

The Defense Ministry is responsible for the army’s budget and logistics, its awards, and strategic issues, while decisions about military operations fall to the commander in chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, a post currently held by General Valeriy Zaluzhny. Meanwhile, the General Staff determines the army’s resource requirements.

Yet another suspected poisoning

Negotiators allegedly poisoned during Russia–Ukraine talks

Yet another suspected poisoning

Negotiators allegedly poisoned during Russia–Ukraine talks

“So, Umerov is not going to be in charge of combat operations but will focus on matters related to the military-industrial complex, Ramstein negotiations [with NATO partners], and so on,” said Meduza’s source close to the Ukrainian security forces.

In his resignation statement, outgoing Defense Minister Alexey Reznikov said that one of Ukraine’s priorities moving forward will be to build long-term partnerships with key allies in order to establish real security guarantees and defense capabilities.

Umerov is expected to work on these issues as well — or, more precisely, to continue working on them, if the Anti-Corruption Action Center’s Vitaliy Shabunin is to be believed. According to Shabunin, “Umernov has been overseeing covert shipments of heavy weaponry from countries since the start of the war, which are not publicly disclosed.”

“Hopefully, it strengthens the Defense Ministry. Because before this, it seemed like we were having bad luck with appointments in this agency. Within the ministry, we understand all of our problems,” a source close to Ukraine’s security forces told Meduza.

According to the source, Reznikov’s dismissal was the result of numerous corruption scandals linked to the ministry.

“The defense minister allows that kind of thing in contracts and claims that he can’t control it, while meanwhile the whole world is collecting [donations] for drones for Ukraine, and volunteers are trying to help bring [victory] closer… Of course, trust [in Reznikov] was undermined,” he said.

Story by Elizaveta Antonova

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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