German military criticized over Ukrainian medical evacuation flights

For more than four years, the German military has been flying injured Ukrainians to German cities for treatment. One German lawmaker fears "fascist" paramilitaries could be among them.

More than 100 people were killed when fighting was at its heaviest between pro-Western protesters and Russian-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's security forces at Kyiv's Maidan Square in February of 2014. For a short while, the city center appeared to be in a state of civil war. Doctors in the city were overwhelmed by the sheer number of gunshot wounds.

The situation remained turbulent until February 21, when foreign ministers from Germany, France and Poland patched together a late-night compromise at the Presidential Palace between Maidan protesters — represented by people such as current Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko — and the pro-Moscow Yanukovych, who immediately left the country and later reappeared in Russia.

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Central Kyiv was embroiled in violence during the height of the Maidan protests in 2014

During those dramatic days, pro-Western activists and Ukrainian parliamentarians desperately implored European diplomats to help the many injured. Since the Yanukovych regime used the Soviet-style tactic of combing hospitals in search of demonstrators, a number of improvised emergency rooms popped up around the city — including at the old National Library and the Saint Catherine Lutheran Church.

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That is when then-German Ambassador Christof Weil took decisive action. In early March of 2014, Germany's military, the Bundeswehr, flew in a Medevac plane. German doctors examined patients and selected a number of the most critically injured demonstrators and Ukrainian police officers to be taken to Germany for treatment.

MedEvac Lazarettflugzeug der Bundesluftwaffe in Kiew Christof Rubbert und Christof Weil

Weil (right) helped organize the medical evacuations while serving as Germany's ambassador in Kyiv

Treating the wounded

The Bundeswehr has conducted seven more transport flights since then, most recently in July. However, the situation has fundamentally changed since the first mission more than four years ago. After the Maidan revolution and the new Ukrainian government's pivot away from Moscow, Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and helped foment a war in eastern Ukraine. As a result, those being flown to Germany since that time have been Ukrainian soldiers. Their destination: army hospitals in Berlin, Hamburg, Koblenz and Ulm, all of which have surgeons with the know-how needed to treat their wounds.

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That policy has now come under criticism. "Is it acting impartially, or showing support for coup organizers in Kyiv? Why are none of the thousands of injured civilians from eastern Ukraine being treated?" asked Left Party parliamentarian Alexander Neu during an interview with DW. Speaking recently during a parliamentary hearing before the Bundestag's defense committee, of which he is a member, Neu asked how many of the Ukrainians flown to Germany were "official Ukrainian service members" and "how many were in paramilitary battalions such as the fascist Azov Battalion?"

Deutschland - Abgeordnete des Deutschen Bundestages

Left Party lawmaker Neu questions why civilians from eastern Ukraine aren't being treated

Neu is concerned that far-right radicals may be among those being treated in Germany. He claims that battalions of guerrilla fighters not under the command of Ukrainian officers are freely operating in Ukraine. When the war in eastern Ukraine began, that was indeed the case, as improvised bands of volunteer fighters stood up to Moscow-backed separatists and invading Russian soldiers. Yet nationalist forces within the command structure of the Ukrainian army were quickly forced to put a stop to radical militias, under pressure from the United States and the European Union. Many of the volunteers fighting in those groups were drafted into the army. The Azov Battalion, which had a number of far-right radicals in its ranks and fought mainly in the port city of Mariupol, was initially integrated into the National Guard and then pulled back from the front altogether in 2016.   

Selection according to medical criteria

None of that, however, is of concern to the Bundeswehr, which says decisions about who will receive care are made by doctors who base their judgments on medical criteria. The Bundeswehr says soldiers are chosen from a pool of preselected individuals — "totally independent" of their political views — by Ukrainian and German doctors.

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"Patients must be in need of medical assistance in Germany that cannot be provided to them in Ukraine," a medical services spokesperson from the Bundeswehr's Koblenz base said. Furthermore, it must be highly probable that, "the patient can return to Ukraine after treatment and recovery."

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Some 117 Ukrainian soldiers have been treated in Germany since 2014, mostly in Bundeswehr hospitals. The military spokesperson says they were in care for periods ranging from "two weeks to 12 months." Most patients were treated for "gunshot and explosives wounds," which doctors in Ukraine were unable to operate on.