Russian doctors ordered to form 'special brigades' to deal with Ukraine war casualties

Doctors at one Russian hospital were informed they had to be ready to work at a moment's notice. Credit: AP

Russian doctors have been ordered to form "special brigades" to deal with casualties from the war in Ukraine, according to a doctor who spoke to ITV News on the condition of anonymity. On the 22 February, according to the doctor, hospitals received a document cancelling holidays for senior staff and ordering all staff to work "under a special regime" of a heightened state of readiness.

The document arrived at hospitals which have research ties to the Russian government and which have previously dealt with war casualties from Ukraine's Donbass and Syria.

The letter arrived two days before Vladimir Putin ordered his invasion of Ukraine and a day after he slammed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of Ukraine in an hour-long nationwide address.

Listen to the ITV News podcast What You Need To Know, for the latest expert analysis on Ukraine

Following receipt of the document, doctors at one Russian hospital were informed they had to be ready to work at a moment's notice. ITV News has been told that on 1 March, on one hospital's daily morning zoom call, medics were given a message by hospital management. "They told us, 'we order everyone to work under a special regime."' "They said that at the moment no one in particular is being called, but that everyone should be ready," the doctor told ITV News.

The doctor said they were told, "we need to create special brigades. Some are specialists, for example, surgeons, haematologists and so on. Others are general [medics.] They [hospital management] said there should be brigades where people are contactable at all times and are ready to go at any moment."

A woman is overwhelmed by emotion in the backyard of a house damaged by a Russian airstrike, according to locals, outside the capital Kyiv. Credit: AP

ITV News understands doctors and nurses at a different hospital have been sent today to work at a hospital in the Rostov region.

This region of Russia borders Ukraine.

Russian forces are visible in the region on satellite imagery and it also the destination for evacuees from the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk 'peoples' republics' in eastern Ukraine.

Russian military vehicles moves during a military exercising at a training ground in the Rostov region in January. Credit: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

Today Russia’s Defence Ministry announced the number of Russian troops who have died since the invasion began.

Major General Igor Konashenkov said that Russian losses were smaller than that of Ukraine and said 498 people had died "in the line of duty" and that 1,597 servicemen were injured.

On 25 February ITV News exclusively reported the existence of a document which indicated that Russia's Ministry of Health was preparing for a massive medical emergency.

The document called for medical institutions to identify medical staff ready to relocate and work and to provide the Health Ministry with a list of medics including trauma, heart, maxillofacial and paediatric surgeons.

The document was dated 25 February and ordered that lists be compiled by 6pm that day. It was signed by the deputy health minister. Following publication of that document, three Russian doctors confirmed to ITV News that they had seen a copy of it.

Neither the document seen by ITV News dated 25 February nor the one described by the Russian doctor dated 22 February explicitly mentioned the war in Ukraine.

On the hospital's zoom call, the Russian doctor also said Ukraine was not mentioned and medics were not told where they would be going. On the call, the doctor said: "In my department, they reacted calmly. We were told that they could send us anywhere. Maybe to Moscow, and maybe to other regions. But no one asked questions, because everyone knows where they will be going in the end."

According to the doctor who spoke to ITV News, this is not the first time Russia has asked medical staff to deal with its war casualties.

The doctor said casualties from the war in the Donbass in eastern Ukraine which began in 2014 were brought to the hospital for treatment.

Medics, the doctor said, have also previously been drafted in to help with military campaigns abroad. "For us, these stories are more or less familiar - previously people went to Syria, now they are going to deal with Ukraine." Russia's military intervention in the Syrian civil war began in September 2015. ITV News was told by the Russian doctor that medics are generally sent to conflicts in a "voluntary compulsory format." Asked by ITV News whether it is possible to refuse to become a part of the "special brigades" which are said to deal with Russian casualties from the war in Ukraine, the doctor said if they refused, they "would be replaced within the brigade."

An armed man stands by the remains of a Russian military vehicle in Bucha, close to Kyiv. Credit: AP

Some hospitals are putting out calls among doctors to backfill shifts because, ITV News has been told, medics have already been sent away to work. One message seen by ITV News, reads: "Dear Doctors! We have an amazing opportunity to fill in for [name of doctor] who is on an urgent business trip. We need willing people for a vacant shift on March [date]".

The call for some doctors to help treat victims of the war in Ukraine has been so sudden that ITV News has been told of medical staff rushing in to say goodbye to colleagues before being taken straight from work towards the frontlines to deal with casualties following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

ITV News has asked Russia's Ministry of Health whether it is true doctors are being sent to treat casualties associated with Russia's invasion of Ukraine but is yet to receive a response.