Reznikov's Replacement: Who is New Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov?
18:25 GMT 04.09.2023 (Updated: 20:18 GMT 04.09.2023)
Volodymyr Zelensky removed Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov from his post Sunday, citing the need for "new approaches and other formats of interaction with both the military and society in general." Sputnik reached out to a veteran Ukrainian politician in exile and a senior retired US Army officer to get a better sense of Reznikov’s replacement.
Ukraine's president has picked State Property Fund chief Rustem Umerov as his preferred candidate to replace Reznikov, with his approval by parliament now all but a shoe-in following Zelensky’s ban on major opposition parties last year.
Reznikov, an outspoken career politician and lawyer who served as defense minister since November 2021, appeared to have no illusions about the job he was filling, admitting earlier this year Ukraine was "carrying out NATO's mission"
against Russia, with Ukrainians being made to ‘shed their blood’ so that NATO militaries don't have to shed theirs.
Reznikov's name is associated with several large-scale scandals
, from inflated prices on army food and fuel supplies, to a winter jacket procurement row, corruption-driven draft evasion and payoff schemes, and weapons pilfering and smuggling-related criminal allegations
. His tenure as defense minister was been topped off by the failure of the three-month-old counteroffensive, which expended over 43,000 Ukrainian soldiers' lives and thousands of armored vehicles, without making any substantial gains against entrenched Russian forces in the Donbass, Kherson and Zaporozhye.
Umerov’s biography is straightforward for someone from Ukraine’s pro-Western political class. Born in 1982 in Soviet Uzbekistan, Umerov, an ethnic Crimean Tatar, became a lawmaker in the Ukrainian Rada parliament from Holos – a center-right liberal, pro-European political party, in 2019. The politician has played an active role in spreading blatant propaganda about the alleged mistreatment of the Crimean Tatar community by Russia in Crimea – claims which Crimean Tatar leaders actually living in the peninsula have repeatedly debunked
Umerov was tapped to join Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council in 2020, with his portfolio focusing on working on strategies for the "de-occupation of Crimea." In September 2022, he was picked by Zelensky to become chairman of the State Property Fund, meeting with
wealthy foreign investors eager to take advantage of the fire sale selloff of Ukrainian state assets
, including the United Mining and Chemical Company, the Odessa Port Plant, and Centerenergo, one of Ukraine’s largest power generating companies.
One seemingly unusual note from Umerov’s biography is his utter lack of military experience. Unlike Reznikov, who served in the Soviet Air Force to the rank of sergeant in the 1980s, Umerov never served in Ukraine’s military, perhaps shedding light on the true role of the post he has been tasked with filling.
"Ukraine today has switched to a European model of governance. Its essence lies in the fact that the defense minister has nothing to do with command and control of troops," Volodymyr Oleynyk, a Ukrainian politician and former Rada lawmaker now living in exile outside Ukraine, explained to Sputnik.
Instead, Oleynyk said, the command and control of the troops falls to Zelensky and Armed Forces’ Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi.
The post of defense minister "is related to provision for the army, tenders, state orders. It has to do with representing the Defense Ministry in parliament, abroad, and so on. [Umerov] knows English. That’s enough. We have to remember that Ursula von der Leyen once headed the German Defense Ministry, even though she was a gynecologist by profession. And everything was alright. That’s why such a figure was agreed on today, and why he suits everyone," Oleynyk said.
Ukraine at a Crossroads
What role Umerov will play in his capacity as defense minister will depend not on his own wishes, and not even Zelensky's, Oleynyk stressed. Rather, the deciding factor will be played by Kiev's "partners" from across the ocean.
"What program he’ll adhere to is not yet clear, because the United States has two possible strategic paths. The current one is to continue the conflict 'to the last Ukrainian'. The second is to freeze it. In the near future, we will see based on other personnel changes what decisions will finally be made by the US. In Ukraine, no one independently solves questions related to personnel without the Americans," the exiled Ukrainian politician said, adding that as the side that "pays the piper," Washington has the right to call the tune.
Three Things Ukraine's Defense Minister Must Know
Oleynyk listed three things that a Ukrainian defense minister must know to be successful at his job. "First, he shouldn’t try to be clever. He must repeat what he is told and do what he's told. This is very important. Second, he must know how to properly divide everything up. And third…he must not steal from his own."
Umerov's experience in the State Property Fund will be of assistance, Oleynyk said, with that job's requirements, centered around "buying and selling" and "dividing everything up correctly" so that "your guys get everything, and everyone else gets what's prescribed under the law" equally applicable to the Defense Ministry.
Since any serious reforms would require money and approval from Kiev’s curators, Oleynyk doesn’t expect Umerov to make any substantive, sensible changes, with the corruption-ridden Defense Ministry expected to continue to chug along, with those with money to pay bribes able to buy their way out of the draft, while those who won’t will be caught, sent to the front, and buried. "That's the whole scheme, while their own children feel just fine living abroad," the observer said.
Earl Rasmussen, a retired US Army lieutenant colonel and international consultant specializing in geopolitics and military affairs, says Reznikov's sacking probably has to do with Zelensky's search for some kind of “political boost” to his falling popularity amid recognition that his support in the West is waning.
"He's worried about support from the West, obviously," Rasmussen told Sputnik. “They’ve got a morale problem for sure…I think there's probably still corruption going on as well. Probably not just defense but other departments as well. And the counteroffensive is not going well. I mean to put it straightforward it’s a complete failure and the conflict should never have taken place to begin with. I think Reznikov was tainted to some degree. And so [Zelensky is] looking for probably a political boost or a public relations campaign, maybe appeasing the West."
Umerov's business background, his experience as a lawmaker, the fact that he's a Crimean Tatar with possible connections and ability to gather intelligence from inside Crimea – all these factors may have played a role in his selection to replace Reznikov, Rasmussen speculated.
One big positive about Umerov’s candidacy for Zelensky, according to Rasmussen, is that he "has no connections to the military, so you can’t put a finger on him and blame him for the complete catastrophe that has occurred over the last year-and-a-half and over the last three months." The same goes for the corruption scandals swirling around Reznikov, who can now be blamed "for everything that’s going on," and Umerov brought in to give the Defense Ministry "a clean slate," at least for a time.
Echoing Oleynyk's point about the Ukrainian crisis being at a crossroads, Rasmussen suggested that there may be opinions brewing among the political elite in Kiev "on whether they should actually go into serious negotiations with the Russians to put a ceasefire on this. But unless the West is supporting it, nothing’s going to happen. And so it’s not going to make any changes as far as the direction of the conflict, maybe even making things worse," he predicted.
Asked if Reznikov's ouster was connected in any way to British Defense Minister Ben Wallace’s resignation just a few days earlier, Rasmussen said that the big common thread linking the two seems to be the falling enthusiasm in Western countries for continuing their support for Kiev, and London's status as the second-most prominent cheerleader of the counteroffensive, which has now failed. In fact, Wallace’s retirement may have freed Zelensky’s hand to remove Reznikov, allowing for a "clean sweep both on the Western side as well as within the Ukrainian defense side," the observer summed up.