Who Is Rustem Umerov, Zelensky’s Nominee for Ukraine’s Defense Minister?

by Pelican Press
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President Volodymyr Zelensky named Rustem Umerov as his choice to be Ukraine’s next defense minister, opting for a prominent member of the Crimean Tatar ethnic group who has played a key role in negotiations with Russia since the start of the war.

In announcing his decision on Sunday, Mr. Zelensky was brief. “Mr. Umerov,” he said, “does not need any additional introductions.”

Though a member of an opposition political party, Mr. Umerov, 41, has taken on several critical roles for the government since the Russian invasion last year. He was the chief Ukrainian negotiator of an agreement that allowed Ukraine to export some of its grain, and a prominent negotiator on prisoner exchanges.

A former investment banker, Mr. Umerov is a lawmaker with the Holos party, which is in opposition to Mr. Zelensky’s Servant of the People party. He served as a key representative for Ukraine in peace talks with Russian diplomats in the early months of the war, and was one of several people, including the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who reportedly suffered symptoms associated with poisoning just before negotiations in Istanbul in March last year.

Russia has persecuted the Crimean Tatars, who are predominantly Muslim, since it illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, targeting them for arrests, Ukrainian authorities say. Many of their leaders have fled to territory controlled by Ukraine.

Mr. Umerov has been clear that he is aligned with Mr. Zelensky on refusing to cede any Ukrainian territory to Russia. The Donbas region in eastern Ukraine and Crimea are “our red lines,” he told the Turkish state news agency Anadolu last year, adding, “We will not give up our people or our land.”

For the past year, Mr. Umerov has been the chairman of Ukraine’s State Property Fund, which is responsible for privatizating state assets. In the first half of 2023, the fund reported its biggest proceeds in 10 years, bringing in $49 million by auctioning off state property, including the Ust-Dunaisk seaport in the Odesa region.

Widespread privatization in Ukraine, he told Reuters, would “be the last nail in Communism’s coffin.”

Valerie Hopkins contributed reporting.

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