Meet Zelenskyy’s pick for Ukraine’s new defense minister, who’s been deeply involved with Russian negotiations and prisoner exchanges

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has named Rustem Umerov (pictured above) as Ukraine’s new defense minister.

Dogukan Keskinkilic/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Rustem Umerov is set to become Ukraine’s next defense minister. 
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made the announcement on Sunday. 
Ukraine’s defense ministry has been mired in corruption scandals in the past few months. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has named his choice for his country’s new defense minister: Rustem Umerov, a man best known for negotiating with the Russians on prisoner exchanges and grain exports.

Zelenskyy said on Sunday that Umerov will be taking over from incumbent defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov. Umerov’s appointment as defense minister is still pending the parliament’s confirmation.

“Oleksiy Reznikov has gone through more than 550 days of full-scale war. I believe that the Ministry needs new approaches and other formats of interaction with both the military and society at large,” Zelenskyy said in a speech on Sunday. “Now Rustem Umerov should lead the Ministry.”

A representative for Umerov told Insider that Umerov’s key priorities as defense minister will be announced if he is confirmed by parliament.

Ukraine’s defense ministry has been mired in corruption scandals over the past few months. Last month, Zelenskyy fired all of Ukraine’s army recruitment chiefs after an investigation revealed widespread corruption.

The defense ministry has also been accused of purchasing food and winter jackets at inflated prices, per the Kyiv Independent. Reznikov had previously offered to resign if the allegations over the winter jackets were proven true.

“Minister Reznikov was very effective at getting support from other nations,” Ben Hodges, a former lieutenant general who headed US Army Europe, told Insider.

Umerov “will have to focus more on management of the ministry, ensuring that Ukraine has the institutional capabilities for successful prosecution of the war and for future security requirements,” Hodges continued.

A key role in negotiations with Russia

Umerov comes from Crimea’s Tatar community, an ethnic minority in Ukraine. Prior to entering politics in 2019, Umerov was a businessman and investor.

Since the start of the Ukraine war, Umerov has played a role in several negotiations with the Russians. 

In March 2022, Umerov experienced symptoms of poisoning while he was involved in peace negotiations with Russia. Umerov and two colleagues experienced “eye and skin inflammation and piercing pain in the eyes” after attending bilateral peace talks, according to investigative outlet Bellingcat. The symptoms abated the following day. 

Umerov was also directly involved in the high-profile prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia in September 2022. The successful negotiation was in part due to Umerov’s close ties with Muslim nations such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The prison exchange involved hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners and was organized with Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s assistance.

Umerov’s relationship with Turkey again proved beneficial when he worked with the country to broker a deal with the Russians to resume Ukraine’s grain exports last year.

In September 2022, Umerov was appointed the head of Ukraine’s State Property Fund, which privatizes state assets and which was plagued by corruption scandals before Umerov took over, per Reuters

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