Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s decision to replace his defence chief has been seen primarily as an attempt to clean up corruption. But the appointment of Rustem Umerov, a Crimean Tatar and a Muslim, is a signal that Ukraine is serious about returning Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
Speculations about the replacement of Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defence minister since November 2021, have been rife for months.
While personally not accused of any wrongdoing, the man by President Zelensky’s side since day one of the Russian full-scale invasion was seen as unable to stop corruption penetrating his ministry.
Military procurement scandals and accusations of bribery against officials at enlistment centres made him damaged goods in the eyes of Ukrainian society, currently in need of a morale boost in the wake of a slower than expected offensive.
This is where Rustem Umerov comes in.
The 41-year-old is a government official who for the past year headed Ukraine’s State Property Fund, but is best known for negotiating with Russia and for organising successful prisoner exchanges.
Not a complete unknown but not someone in the media spotlight either, he is a Crimean Tatar born in exile and an active member of this ethnic community, trying to reinstate its cultural identity and its place in the world.
Most importantly for Ukrainians, he has not been accused of corruption, embezzlement or profiteering.
Mr Umerov came into politics in 2019 when he ran for parliament with the reformist “Holos” party, which he later left to become a government official.
Before that he worked in the private sector, first in telecoms and later in investment.
In 2013, he founded a charity programme to help train Ukrainians at the prestigious Stanford University in the US.
But the defining part of his identity are his Crimean Tatar roots and the role they can play in Ukraine’s firm intention to return Crimea.
Who are Crimean Tatars?
Crimean Tatars are the indigenous Turkic population of the Crimean peninsula. During World War II they were falsely accused of collaboration with the Nazis and forcibly deported by the Soviet army to Central Asia.
On May 18 1944, a 200,000-strong community was uprooted in one day as families were given a few minutes to pack before being loaded onto trains to be shipped off thousands of kilometres away.
Thousands are thought to have perished in transit, or soon afterwards.
Not the only ethnic group to experience such treatment under Joseph Stalin, the Crimean Tatars spent decades trying to return to their homeland.
Rustem Umerov’s family was amongst those deported and he was born in exile in Uzbekistan. In the late 1980s, when he was still a child, many Crimean Tatars, including his family, were allowed to return to the peninsula.
For many years Mr Umerov advised Mustafa Dzhemilev, the historic leader of Crimean Tatars, and is himself one of the delegates of the Qurultay – the Crimean Tatar Congress.
He was also co-chair of the Crimea Platform, an international diplomatic initiative focused on negotiating with Russia following its 2014 occupation of the peninsula.
“The deportation of Crimean Tatars is one of the greatest crimes of the Soviet regime,” Umerov wrote in a piece for Liga.net in 2021. “It was started by the tyrants in power at that time in order to exterminate an entire nation.”
While he attacked Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Black Sea peninsula, he also worked towards negotiating with Moscow to free several Crimean Tatars, arrested in Crimea since 2014 and bring them to Ukraine.
Speaking to the BBC soon after the start of the full-scale invasion in 2022, Umerov said he was determined “to find [a] political and diplomatic resolution to this brutal invasion”.
In his televised address to the nation on Sunday, President Zelensky confirmed he would seek parliamentary approval to make Mr Umerov his new defence minister, saying the ministry “requires fresh approaches and new modes of engagement with both the military and society at large.”
For now a full-scale military assault on Crimea may be some way off, and some observers have described as unrealistic Ukraine’s intentions to return to its pre-2014 borders, which would include the peninsula.
But President Zelenksy’s appointment of an indigenous Crimean to play a key role in realising these intentions sends a clear message: this is Kyiv’s endgame.