Ukraine is going to have a new defense minister, its president Volodimir Zelensky announced Sunday night. The ministry needs “new approaches and other formats of interaction with the army and society”, he explained before announcing that Rustem Umerov, Muslim and Crimean Tatar, would replace Oleksii Reznikov in what seems like further confirmation that Ukraine intends to liberate the occupied peninsula. Reznikov tendered his resignation on Monday, claiming that he fulfilled the key tasks he was given in his November 2021 appointment.
The decision has not been a surprise. Rumors about the impending dismissal intensified last week. Reznikov’s position weakened after several journalistic investigations that led to allegations of corruption at the ministry. Reznikov has not been personally charged, but his public image has deteriorated, casting a shadow over Zelensky’s effort to root out corruption in state institutions. His ministry has also been criticized by sectors of civil society for its apparent slowness in updating military production in Ukraine.
At the same time, Reznikov stressed in his resignation letter that he oversaw Ukraine’s arduous journey towards receiving a number of modern weapons, instead of receiving barely anything from their allies a few months before Russia launched its full-scale invasion. More than 50% of the initially conquered Ukrainian territory has been liberated by Ukrainian troops, Reznikov noted.
The long-awaited appointment of his replacement, Rustem Umerov, 41, has been met with cautious optimism. Umerov has experience in both corporate and state structures, having managed the complicated State Property Fund and was a member of parliament in 2019-2022. He is expected to be better than lawyer Reznikov at streamlining the sometimes slow and bureaucratic ministry.
Since it seems that the war will continue in 2024, its outcome may fundamentally depend on the ability of Ukraine and its partners to increase innovation and production in the defense sector. Producing enough drones has been a particular concern, with private companies and volunteers criticizing the ministry for moving too slowly.
Umerov used to not belong to Zelensky’s inner circle, but his importance has been growing. He participated in the negotiations between Ukraine and Russia in March 2022 in Istanbul. He speaks Turkish and has strong ties to Turkey, where a large number of Crimean Tatars reside. He also served as co-chair of a parliamentary group seeking to develop relations with Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
The two countries have been playing an important role in the war. Turkey has a significant naval presence in the Black Sea and supports Ukrainian grain exports, while Saudi Arabia recently hosted a summit bringing together Ukraine and many “neutral” countries. The latter also helped carry out the great prisoner exchange last September.
Ukraine is increasingly working to build relationships outside the usual circle of its supporters, mainly located in the collective West, as it seeks to apply more pressure on Russia. Therefore, Umerov’s contacts there are likely to come in handy.
His appointment can also be interpreted as an emphatic reiteration that “Crimea is Ukraine.” “Imagine approaching a Defense Minister, who is a Crimean Tatar, with the suggestion that Ukraine should give up Crimea in exchange for a truce with Russia,” is a common reaction.
This people of Turkish origin was the most numerous ethnic group on the peninsula before Russia annexed it 250 years ago and subjected it to repression, which culminated in the deportation of all of them in 1944 to Central Asia. The crackdowns were renewed with new force after Russia annexed the region yet again in 2014, with Crimean Tatars among the staunchest supporters of returning the peninsula to Ukrainian control. Umerov is a highly respected member of the Crimean Tatar community in Ukraine, having been an adviser to the former head of its representative body, Mustafa Dzhemilev.
Finally, with a Muslim Defense Minister and a Jewish president, Ukraine moves further away from the image of a “Nazi State” spread with such effort by Russia.
Although Umerov’s appointment has yet to be approved by parliament, it is expected to happen this week, with Zelensky commanding the majority there. Meanwhile, Reznikov is expected to become the country’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. Reznikov could continue to play an important role in building an arms coalition, as Ukraine needs more support to help its counter-offensive move forward.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba revealed today that he expects German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to approve the delivery of long-range TAURUS missiles that would help further damage Russian logistics in Ukraine and destroy its military bases further back. from the front line. Kuleba also stressed that Ukraine has clear evidence that several “kamikaze” drones, used by Russia in its attack on Monday against grain export infrastructure in Odessa, fell on Romanian territory, across the Danube. He suggested that the UN-backed “grain broker” need to renew its operation, but warned against any concessions to Russia, as this would only encourage its “blackmail” in the nearest future.