Eastern Team
7 November 2023

IEŚ Commentaries 991 (239/2023)

Ukraine’s Defence Minister and His Entourage

Ukraine’s Defence Minister and His Entourage

ISSN: 2657-6996
IEŚ Commentaries 991
Publisher: Instytut Europy Środkowej

In September 2023, a large-scale reorganisation of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine began. In the view of the authorities, the appointment of Rustem Umerov, an experienced economist and politician, as Minister of Defence was intended to ensure more effective management of the department and stem the tide of criticism against it. Subsequent personnel changes at the ministry may indicate that the new minister is seeking to fundamentally restructure the department.

Rustem Umerov’s biography. On 6 September 2023, the parliament of Ukraine, with the votes of 338 deputies, elected Rustem Umerov as Minister of Defence. He became the youngest head of this department in the history of the state. Umerov was born on 19 April 1982 in Bulungur, in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, to a family of Crimean Tatars. One of his great-grandfathers, Amet Mustafa, was the imam of a mosque in Alushta in Crimea, while another, Seyit Ibraїm, was a village chief near Alushta. Umerov’s family was forcibly deported to Central Asia by the Soviet authorities in 1944 and only returned to Crimea in 1991, during the repatriation of Crimean Tatars.

Umerov graduated from a Crimean boarding school for gifted children, after which he was awarded a scholarship to the Future Leaders Exchange programme in the USA. Upon his return, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in economics (2004) and a master’s degree in finance (2006) from the National Academy of Management in Kyiv. He then graduated from the Institute for Applied System Analysis of the National Technical University of Ukraine ‘Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute’ with a specialisation in computer science and information technology.

From 2004 to 2010, Umerov worked at the company Life (the third-largest Ukrainian mobile phone operator, owned by businessman Rinat Akhmetov and Turkish operator Turkcell), where he was responsible for, among other things, legal support and logistics. He then joined the investment industry, holding managing director positions at ICG Investments and iCapital. In 2013, together with his older brother Aslan Ömer Qırımlı, he founded an investment company ASTEM, which manages investments in the communications, information technology, and infrastructure sectors. Moreover, they established the charitable ASTEM Foundation, which became one of the donors of The Ukrainian Emerging Leaders Program at Stanford University. This programme aims to train Ukrainian politicians, entrepreneurs, businessmen, and leaders of civil society organisations. Among others, the well-known Ukrainian singer Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, who founded the Voice (Holos) political party in 2019, studied under this programme.

Rustem Umerov was a delegate to the Qurultay of the Crimean Tatar People[1] for the fifth (2007) and sixth (2012) terms and an advisor to former Chairman of the Medjlis of the Crimean Tatar People[2] Mustafa Dzhemilev, later his assistant for human rights and international activities. He is a co-founder of several foundations and international organisations related to the protection of Crimean Tatars, including the international non-governmental organisation ‘Bizin Qirim’ (2007), the non-governmental organisation ‘The Community of Crimean Tatars’ (2007), the Crimea Development Foundation (2011-2013), and the Crimean International Business Association (2013). He is involved in the renovation and construction of mosques. In recent years, Umerov has participated in the project to build a cathedral mosque and an Islamic cultural centre in Kyiv.

Deputy of the Verkhovna Rada. In the 2019 parliamentary elections, Rustem Umerov, representing the Voice party, won a seat as a deputy of the Verkhovna Rada. In parliament, he served as the chairman of the Temporary Special Committee for Monitoring the Receipt and Use of International Material and Technical Assistance, co-chairman of the Crimea Platform Initiative, secretary of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Human Rights, Deoccupation, and Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories, National Minorities, and Interethnic Relations. Additionally, he served as vice-chair of the Permanent Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and co-chairman of the inter-parliamentary relations groups with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, China, Japan, the United Kingdom, the USA, and Canada. During this period, he co-authored almost a hundred bills. Above all, he was concerned with restoring the historical and political rights of Crimean Tatars at the state level. In 2020, Umerov joined the group for the development of a strategy for the deoccupation and reintegration of Crimea and Sevastopol, established within the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine. In February and March 2022, he was a member of the Ukrainian delegation set up for negotiations with representatives of the Russian Federation, and on 4 April, by decree of President Volodymyr Zelensky, he was officially included in the delegation authorised to prepare and agree a draft agreement on security guarantees for Ukraine.

Umerov was involved in the creation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative and dealt with the exchange of prisoners of war, the release of political prisoners, children, and civilians, and the evacuation of civilians from occupied territories. Moreover, following the Presidential Decree of 1 September 2022, he became a plenipotentiary of the Consultative Council for Cooperation of Ukraine with Arab and Muslim States, chaired by the Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Andriy Yermak.

Chairman of the State Property Fund of Ukraine (SPFU). The Verkhovna Rada appointed Rustem Umerov as president of the SPFU on 7 September 2022. Importantly, the politician managed to avoid high-profile corruption scandals in this position. Immediately after his nomination, he unblocked the small privatisation process and simplified it by allowing the auctioning of indebted enterprises. In one year, the SPFU privatised more than 400 facilities (including 70 enterprises), bringing in UAH 3.8 billion. Taking into account the taxes paid and the repayment of debt, the total revenue amounted to UAH 5.2 billion (approximately USD 141 million). The fund also managed to optimise the lease of state facilities and thus slightly increase budget revenues. Umerov’s team also focused on carrying out the division of state-owned assets into three categories: those that should remain state-owned, those that should be privatised, and those that should be liquidated.

Deputies of the Defence Minister. Personnel rotations at the Ministry of Defence began on 27 September 2023 with the nomination of Liudmyla Darahan, previously the deputy to Rustem Umerov at the SPFU, as the new Secretary of State. On the same day, three deputy ministers were appointed: Yuriy Dzhygyr (in charge of financial issues), Natalia Kalmykova (responsible for the adaptation of demobilised servicemen and the reform of military medical commissions), and Kateryna Chornohorenko (responsible for the digitalisation of the ministry). Yuriy Dzhygyr worked at the Ministry of Finance of Ukraine from 2016 to 2020 and, for the last three years, advised the World Bank on healthcare financing reform; Kalmykova headed the Ukrainian Veterans Foundation; and Chornohorenko worked at the Ministry of Digital Transformation, managing, among other things, the Drone Army project.

On 5 October, three more deputy ministers were appointed: Stanislav Haider (responsible for defence ministry development), Ivan Havryliuk (deputy for military-technical policy), and Dmytro Klimenkov (deputy for public procurement). Klimenkov has become the key deputy to the new defence minister and is to be responsible for shaping policy in the sphere of procurement and for launching the army supply agency. It should be noted that he previously served as first deputy to Umerov at the SPFU and before that was director of infrastructure and logistics at International Airlines of Ukraine and a project manager at the Swedish company Ericsson. Lieutenant General Oleksandr Pavliuk was not affected by the personnel changes, as he remained in his position as First Deputy Minister of Defence.

Conclusions. The change of Ukraine’s defence minister was prompted by the need to defuse tension surrounding the Ministry of Defence, which had been ongoing since the winter of 2023, and to put the ministry’s procurement system in order. Rustem Umerov was not the main candidate for the post, but he proved to be the most compromising. His career to date has shown that he is a good manager and is also positively assessed by opponents of the presidential team. Among the strengths of the new head of the ministry is his ability to negotiate, especially with Muslim countries. He has close contacts with the political and military elites of the United States, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, which may contribute to his effective communication with Ukraine’s partner states on the issue of military-technical cooperation.

Personnel changes at the Ministry of Defence indicate that Umerov has been allowed to bring his own team into the ministry, including a deputy in charge of procurement. Given the selection of deputy ministers, including both the military (Oleksandr Pavliuk, Ivan Havryliuk) and experts in finance and digitalisation, one of Umerov’s goals is also to adapt the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine to the models operating in analogous ministries in NATO countries.

By nominating Rustem Umerov as Minister of Defence, the Ukrainian authorities hope that, as an efficient politician unburdened by corruption scandals, he will be able to ensure the effective management of the ministry and stop criticism of this department for a while. At the same time, the appointment of a Crimean Tatar to this post illustrates the unwillingness of the President’s Office to make territorial compromises in the name of peace, including on the issue of the Crimean Peninsula.

[1] The Qurultay (or Kurultai) of the Crimean Tatar People is the national congress, which is the supreme plenipotentiary representative body of the Crimean Tatar people.

[2] The Medjlis of the Crimean Tatar People is the executive body of the Qurultay in the period between sessions, elected by the Qurultay from among its delegates.