Russia-Ukraine War: Putin and Erdogan Meet, Showcasing Cooperation but Little Progress on Grain Deal

Rustem Umerov, whom President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine named as next minister of defense, will be overseeing the Ukrainian army as it is engaged in some of the fiercest fighting of the war with Russia. But his background is not military.

Instead, the appointment of Mr. Umerov, a former telecommunications executive, underscores another side of Ukraine’s war effort: managing a sprawling military budget.

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

But Ukraine now spends about half of its national budget on security and defense, and Western allies have raised worries about money being siphoned off in corruption. The shake-up at the Defense Ministry follows a series of revelations of mismanaged contracts for weapons and basic supplies such as food and winter coats.

Mr. Umerov, 41, a member of the Crimean Tatar ethnic group who is set to be Ukraine’s first Muslim government minister, founded an investment firm before running for Parliament in 2019. In Parliament, he led a commission with oversight over Ukraine’s use of foreign aid and, last summer, led a separate committee monitoring foreign weapons donations.

Anticorruption groups saw as a welcome and overdue step Mr. Zelensky’s appointment of a minister with financial and anticorruption credentials to strengthen the army by plugging leaks in military spending.

For the past year, Mr. Umerov has been the chairman of Ukraine’s State Property Fund, which is responsible for the privatization of state assets. In the first quarter of 2023, the fund reported its highest proceeds in 10 years, bringing in roughly $24 million from auctioning off state assets, including the Ust-Dunaisk commercial seaport in the Odesa region.

Mr. Umerov’s deputy at the property fund, Oleksandr Fedorishyn, said in an interview that financial management, more than military expertise, was needed at the ministry, and that Mr. Umerov’s “deep experience” in accounting and finance would help the war effort.

He will most likely pursue changes to make contracting more transparent at the ministry, similar to those he undertook at the property fund, Mr. Fedorishyn said.

Vitaliy Shabunin, the director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center, said the appointment would “probably be the best decision of the president” because Mr. Umerov had deftly managed the privatization agency, a corner of government once plagued with corruption and insider dealing.

Though he is a member of an opposition political party, Mr. Umerov has taken on several critical roles for the government since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. He was the chief Ukrainian negotiator of the Black Sea grain deal and a prominent negotiator on prisoner exchanges.

Mr. Umerov is a lawmaker with the Holos political party, which is in opposition to Mr. Zelensky’s Servant of the People party. He served as a key negotiator 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.

The Crimean Tatars have been persecuted since Russia illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and Mr. Umerov has been clear that he is aligned with Mr. Zelensky on refusing to cede any Ukrainian territory to Russia. Crimea and the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine 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.”

In Ukraine, his Tatar roots drew attention as a signal to politicians and policymakers in Europe and the United States who have suggested that Ukraine cede Crimea in exchange for peace. It would be more difficult, Ukrainian commentators noted, to ask a Crimean Tatar to surrender the peninsula.

Like many Tatars, Mr. Umerov was born in Uzbekistan, where his family lived in exile after Stalin expelled the Tatars from Crimea, an injustice Tatars have compared to persecutions today under the Russian occupation.

Valerie Hopkins contributed reporting.

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