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Zelenskyy's fourth defence minister: why the president is replacing Oleksii Reznikov with Rustem Umierov

Wednesday, 6 September 2023, 05:30

In early February 2023, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gathered together some journalists from leading Ukrainian media outlets in his office for a conversation. 

The president had a request for the media: that they tone down their criticism of corruption in the army and the Ministry of Defence. The first public scandal over the procurement of food for the Armed Forces was then breaking, and the president asked the press not to dump too much bad news on the guys in the trenches. 

The beginning of February 2023 was a time when Bakhmut was being fiercely defended, the Offensive Guard was being formed, and talks on sanctions and EU accession were going ahead.


All these processes required society to be united. For his part, Zelenskyy promised that he would not tolerate corruption and would be clamping down on it.

One of the corruption prevention measures that Zelenskyy mentioned was the potential replacement of the defence minister. He said he had no personal suspicions of Oleksii Reznikov, but he could see that the minister was struggling to cope with the huge number of challenges his department was facing.

Zelenskyy spoke of Reznikov's replacement in February 2023 as if it was all settled.

However, exactly seven months passed between that meeting on Bankova Street (where the President’s Office is located) and the day of Reznikov’s actual resignation. On 5 September, the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian Parliament) accepted Reznikov’s resignation with a constitutional majority, and Zelenskyy proposed that Rustem Umierov be appointed as the next Minister of Defence.

Ukrainska Pravda has uncovered why the replacement took so long, what’s next for Oleksii Reznikov, who else was in the running for the job, and why Umierov was the president’s choice.

The autumn blitzkrieg: how Umierov became Defence Minister

In August 2023, hardly a day went by without Defence Minister Reznikov being "dismissed" in the media and on social media. 

All Ukrainska Pravda’s sources in the government confirmed that the defence minister’s resignation was imminent, yet they were unable to answer the question: "Who will the new defence minister be?"

Zelenskyy had no real candidate until very recently. His major tour of Europe ahead of Independence Day (24 August) delayed the resolution of the issue further. 

"A candidate emerged very quickly, and that was just 10 days ago," a close associate of the president  told us off the record. "Zelenskyy called Umierov, and he could not refuse. Obviously, Umierov was brought into the team by [Andrii] Yermak [Head of the President’s Office], but the decision on the Defence Minister is up to the president. Yermak was quite happy with Rustem at the State Property Fund."

Unexpectedly, Umierov had become a compromise candidate who could please everyone: Zelenskyy sees him as a manager; pro-Western activists as a man with a solid reputation; and Yermak as someone who will not move the two deputy Defence Ministers who are important to Yermak himself.

Formally, Rustem Umierov entered politics as a member of Svyatoslav Vakarchuk's Holos (Voice) party. However, his party affiliation has always correlated with his participation in the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars [a representative body of the Crimean Tatars, similar to a parliament and consisting of 33 members – ed.]. Umierov was, as it were, one of several delegates whom the Crimean Tatar leadership was trying to integrate into various parties in order to better advocate for the interests of their people.


Umierov met Andrii Yermak before the latter became head of the President’s Office, when he was an ordinary presidential aide.

"Initially, [former presidential advisor] Serhii Shefir was responsible for communication with the Mejlis, but he was pretty half-hearted about it. Yermak, on the other hand, listened, took an interest, and wrote everything down in a notebook," says a Ukrainska Pravda source in the Mejlis. 

"In August 2019, Andrii [Yermak] was an advisor to the president. At the time, plans were being drawn up for the president to visit Türkiye, and we have a very large diaspora in Türkiye. We started working then, giving our insights," Umierov explained in an interview with Ukrainska Pravda in October last year. 

Umierov first appeared publicly as a member of the government team when he became a delegate at talks with the Russians in Belarus on 28 February 2022. Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich was also present at those talks for the first time.

Subsequently, Umierov and Abramovich communicated extensively on humanitarian issues in the combat zone. 

In March 2022, Abramovich and Umierov even had the same symptoms of poisoning. 

"There was something red in our eyes. We went to the doctors and had it checked out. They told us that it wasn’t anything too serious, but they didn’t understand what it was. Then we went to see other doctors who specialise in chemical attacks, and they examined us," Umierov recollected in his interview with Ukrainska Pravda.

After the talks moved to Istanbul, the Ukrainian team benefited significantly from the connections Umierov had built up with the Turkish establishment while working as an aide to Mustafa Dzhemiliev [former Chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars - ed.].

Ukrainska Pravda has learned that Umierov is personally acquainted with President Erdoğan and is in direct contact with the Turkish president's right-hand man, Ibrahim Kalin.


Umierov’s ties to Saudi Arabia are also useful for the President’s Office. It was no surprise when he was included in the Ukrainian delegation at the recent "peace" meeting of security advisers in Jeddah.

So it’s only at first glance that the decision to appoint Umierov as Defence Minister may seem unexpected.

Umierov’s appointment triggered a whole chain of reshuffles.

The President’s Office decided to remove Olha Pishchanska from her position as Head of the Anti-Monopoly Committee and appoint her as Head of the State Property Fund to replace Umierov.

Ukrainska Pravda’s sources say that Pishchanska pretty much learned about these changes from news reports in the media and has no desire to work at the State Property Fund. The new head of the Anti-Monopoly Committee is Pavlo Kyrylenko, who was removed from his post as Head of the Donetsk Oblast State Administration for this purpose.

MPs also plan to appoint a new Minister of Culture and Information Policy in the coming weeks - possibly Yuliia Fediv, a former director of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation.

Ukrainska Pravda’s sources say that Fediv has already met with the president, the head of the President’s Office and representatives of parliamentary factions to discuss this.

Now, however, the President’s Office is still conducting final checks on the candidate, and Fediv herself has to tie up loose ends at her current job and form her team in the ministry.

However, none of these appointments could have happened if either of Zelenskyy's two other plans to replace Reznikov had been implemented.

The winter campaign: why Budanov didn’t become Defence Minister

The first time Oleksii Reznikov's resignation was seriously discussed was at the end of January.

These conversations on Bankova Street were preceded by a public outcry upon the publication of a Defence Ministry contract which revealed that food for military personnel was being purchased at inflated prices.

At the time, the real problem for the President’s Office was not so much Reznikov’s removal as finding a new place for him in the team.

"Oleksii is a great negotiator. He has important connections, and that can’t be ignored. He is, after all, a team player, and you can’t afford to lose him, because he has a lot more to bring to the table," one influential official at Bankova Street told Ukrainska Pravda at the time.

In February, the president was considering the candidacy of Kyrylo Budanov, Chief of Defence Intelligence of Ukraine and much admired by Volodymyr Zelenskyy because of the daring operations that Defence Intelligence has pulled off.

Budanov was wary of taking up the appointment, but he did not want to say no to the president directly.

Senior Ukrainska Pravda sources in law enforcement explained Budanov's hesitation as follows: "The Ministry of Defence is a huge machine where most of the staff are people of pre-retirement age. It’s just not possible to reform this structure quickly and deliver instant results."

"It would be difficult for Kyrylo to leave intelligence, where he has adjusted all the work to suit his management style during the war. Budanov was actually preparing to work in the Ministry of Defence, though," the sources admitted.


If the Defence Intelligence chief had headed the Ministry of Defence, then Reznikov would still be in the Cabinet of Ministers (Ukraine’s government).

The position Reznikov would gladly have accepted was Justice Minister. Reznikov could see himself in the Ministry of Justice thanks to his solid background in corporate law.

The current Minister of Justice, Denys Maliuska, would have been sent as Ukraine’s ambassador to the Netherlands, where he could have worked on setting up a tribunal in The Hague to deal with Russian war criminals.

Davyd Arakhamiia, leader of the Sluha Narodu (Servant of the People) party faction, defended Maliuska as Minister of Justice and convinced the president that Reznikov should be moved to the Ministry of Strategic Industries.

Witnesses to the conversation recall the president's dialogue with Arakhamiia: "Davyd came over to Zelenskyy and said: ‘Wait, do we want to punish Oleksii or promote him?’ The president said: ‘To punish him.’ Arakhamiia [replied]: ‘But we’re promoting him to the Ministry of Justice! Let's give him Riabikin's ministry [the Ministry of Strategic Industries] and let him start working there!’"

In fact, after the meeting with Zelenskyy, Arakhamiia openly shared the reshuffle plan with MPs in his faction.

It later emerged that no one had warned Reznikov of his potential move to the Strategic Industries Ministry.

"This is news to me. The president of Ukraine hasn’t said anything to me about the Ministry for Strategic Industries," Reznikov responded immediately after Arakhamiia's remarks.

"Were I to receive such an offer from the president of Ukraine or the prime minister, I would turn it down," Reznikov added.

Reznikov's removal was postponed after media incidents and disagreements within the team. 

The summer campaign: why Kubrakov didn’t become Defence Minister

On 11 July 2023, eleven partner countries joined together to form a fighter jet coalition to organise training for Ukrainian pilots on Western F-16 fighter jets.

"F-16s will protect Ukraine’s skies and NATO's Eastern Flank. The Ukrainian Air Force is prepared to master them as quickly as possible," Defence Minister Reznikov tweeted at the time, putting an end to months of extremely difficult negotiations.

Right around that time, the President’s Office started to look for a suitable candidate to replace Reznikov. There was no direct causation between this and the F-16 deal, but a number of factors made Reznikov’s departure possible by mid-July.

Major negotiations that Reznikov was directly involved in concerning the supply of Western weapons, particularly missile systems and fighter jets, had been completed.

At the same time, pressure among the military was mounting in light of the slow speed and instability of ammunition and weapons supplies. Ukrainska Pravda has reported on cases where deliveries of weapons that Ukraine had paid for in advance were disrupted, and cases of Ukrainian and Western firms failing to fulfil Defence Ministry contracts worth tens of billions of hryvnias.

This has resulted in delays in supplying the Ukrainian military with artillery shells and mortar bombs during this summer’s counteroffensive. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Defence Ministry often finds itself short of funds to enter into new contracts. Sources in the government told Ukrainska Pravda about several terse conversations Reznikov had with Finance Minister Serhii Marchenko, with the latter telling Reznikov to get back the billions of hryvnias that have been stolen to pay for the supplies he needs.

"During one conversation with Reznikov, Marchenko even asked him whether he would buy shells costing one or three hryvnias if both were available. [Reznikov] said: ‘Both – I need everything that’s available on the market.’ Marchenko told him that he’d then have to pay three hryvnias for every shell, because the market would settle on a higher price," a government source said.


Ultimately, Reznikov’s failure to establish an effective system to monitor weapons procurement and logistics is the primary reason why he has been removed from his post.

Although the Defence Ministry’s contracting appears much better in August 2023 than it did in May 2022, its procurement officers entered into so many dubious deals during the early tumultuous months of the full-scale invasion that the army has effectively lost billions of hryvnias and many crucial projects have stalled.

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation, expressed similar concerns to President Zelenskyy in August, suggesting that a replacement be found for the then-Defence Minister. His preferred candidate was Oleksandr Kubrakov, Deputy Prime Minister for the Restoration of Ukraine and Minister of Communities, Territories and Infrastructure Development.

Zelenskyy held several rounds of talks with Kubrakov, but his appointment never materialised. The main reason was that Kubrakov gave him an ultimatum: he said he would only agree to join the Defence Ministry if he could also maintain control over the Ministry of Infrastructure – by having someone from his team appointed as its head.

He said he had spent a long time putting his Infrastructure Ministry team together and they had worked hard to get several key projects off the ground. Now that these projects were about to finally produce results, new management might unsettle this precarious balance.

Zelenskyy didn’t take kindly to being given an ultimatum, and at times his conversations with Kubrakov got quite heated. In the end, Zelenskyy decided to keep Kubrakov in his current position.

People close to Zelenskyy say that he was reluctant to create a new Cabinet of Ministers. Given that the Defence Ministry currently has the largest budget of any government office – a mantle it will pass on to the Ministry of Infrastructure once Ukraine’s partners release funding for the country’s recovery – the president’s concerns are understandable.

Zelenskyy later considered the possibility of appointing Oleksandr Kamyshin, the current Minister of Strategic Industries, as Defence Minister.

Kamyshin, however, has only recently settled into his position (which he assumed in March 2023 after leaving Ukrainian Railways) and was not too keen to join the Ministry of Defence, though he wouldn’t have said no to Zelenskyy if he’d continued to insist.


On 5 September, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine – Ukraine’s parliament – voted to accept Reznikov’s resignation.

With 327 members of parliament voting in favour of Reznikov’s resignation, everyone in the super-majority coalition stood up and applauded as they bid farewell to the outgoing Defence Minister.

Deputy Speaker Olena Kondratiuk and First Deputy Head of the Verkhovna Rada Oleksandr Korniienko even left their seats in the Rada’s praesidium to go down to the government box and give Reznikov a farewell hug.

For a second, it seemed as if Reznikov was about to take up a position rather than leave one.

In reality, however, it is unclear what lies ahead for him now.

After Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom, was unexpectedly removed from his post, there were rumours that Reznikov would replace him – especially given his warm relationships with former UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

When Ukrainska Pravda asked a top official in President Zelenskyy’s team whether Reznikov would really be appointed to the London post, he said, on the evening of 5 September: "That’s the plan."

However, according to sources in diplomatic circles, the Ukrainian Embassy in the UK has not yet received official notification of Reznikov’s appointment.

The question President Zelenskyy was once asked by his colleague from the Servant of the People party comes to mind: "Do we want to punish or promote him?"

Roman Romaniuk, Roman Kravets – Ukrainska Pravda

Translation: Myroslava Zavadska, Sofiia Kohut and Olya Loza

Editing: Teresa Pearce