A U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIA Affairs (USRJC) is making progress toward resolving unanswered questions on personnel missing and unaccounted-for from four separate wars. This positive development is evolving despite frayed nerves between these two nations over serious issues, from military involvement in Syria and the Ukraine, to politically-charged allegations of collusion and interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
On November 8, the 21st Plenum of the USRJC met in Moscow at the Ministry of National Defense in their External Affairs facility. U.S. Co-Chairman General Robert “Doc” Foglesong, USAF (Ret), and Russian Co-Chairman General Colonel Valery Vostrotin led the talks. It was the first time that the director of the DoD’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) Kelly K. McKeague participated in the plenum as a U.S. commissioner. He was joined by two other U.S. Commissioners, Mr. Tim Shea, of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and Dr. Tim Nenninger, National Archives & Records Administration (NARA).
DPAA European-Mediterranean Regional Director Col. Chris Forbes, USA, and Lt.Col. Maxim Alekseyev, Chief of the Russian Commission Support Office, Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., were key to setting up the important sessions, assisted by members of the DPAA Joint Commission Support Directorate. Invited to participate as observers were VFW Executive Director Bob Wallace and National League of POW/MIA Families CEO and Chairman of the Board of Directors Ann Mills-Griffiths, an MIA sister.
This plenary followed USRJC technical sessions, just prior to the Russian Commission’s participation in the National League of POW/MIA Families’ 48th Annual Meeting in June, as well as the August DPAA-hosted Korean War/Cold War Annual Government Briefings, both held in the Arlington/D.C. area.
In his opening remarks at the plenary, General Vostrotin mentioned the ongoing digitization of Soviet military records and the work of Russian staff in its Washington office memorializing at least 139 Russian servicemen buried in the U.S., mainly from the 19th century, and efforts to erect a “Project Zebra” Catalina Lend-Lease memorial in Elizabeth City, N.C. Project Zebra was a secret WWII U.S. Navy program that flew pilots and crew members from the Soviet Union to Elizabeth City Coast Guard base in the last years of the war to train them on a modified version of the PBY Catalina aircraft to be used to find and destroy German submarines in the Atlantic Ocean.
In his opening remarks, Gen. Foglesong, who served 33 years in the Air Force, thanked the Russians for working together to set out the structure of future plenary sessions and four separate working groups that will meet quarterly in the future. The four working groups will focus separately on WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War. He also thanked the Russians for allowing participation of VFW Executive Director Bob Wallace and League CEO/Chairman Ann Mills-Griffiths.
Wallace told SOFREP that he,
…was very impressed with the directness and persistence of U.S. Commissioners in pursuing answers concerning the fate of missing and unaccounted-for American service members. The U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs is a functioning organization that remains mission-focused despite other issues that might divide our two countries.
“I am confident that the commissioners will be able to resolve the access issue. I am also confident that my organization, along with others, will continue to ensure our government honors the Soldier’s Creed to never leave a fallen brother or sister on the battlefield. And, where the circumstances of loss make that impossible, to ensure their families receive as much information as possible about their fate. Our nation must not do any less.”
DPAA Director Kelly K. McKeague – who was appointed Sept. 5 as DPAA Director — told SOFREP, “Relationships within the USRJC continue to strengthen, and the four working groups are forging increased cooperation to secure more tangible outcomes.” And, like Wallace, he felt that “having observers from both the National League of POW/MIA Families and the VFW at the Plenum afforded our Russian counterparts the vital perspectives of the families of the missing as well as combat veterans.”
After a lengthy period of frustration and inactivity, I was encouraged by the seriousness that Russian and American Commissioners and staff brought to this long-sought Plenum. For decades, we’ve known about the former USSR’s support for Vietnam’s wartime objectives, particularly in-country participation in Air Defense training and combat.
“The sense of purpose and mission established by General Foglesong and General Colonel Vostrotin set the stage for constructive discussions on all wars. DPAA Director McKeague’s leadership in the Vietnam War Working Group fulfilled my hope that the purposes of the USRJC will be pursued seriously and in the not-too-distant future.
“I was impressed with the Russian Government’s determination to seek information on their servicemen still missing and unaccounted for from past wars, as I was their decision to meet and pursue our shared humanitarian objectives, despite current policy and political tensions. I was honored to be asked to represent the families from all wars at this important juncture of US-Russian relations.”
The presidents of the United States and the Russian Federation inaugurated the USRJC on March 26, 1992 as a bilateral mechanism for assisting efforts to investigate matters concerning the presence of U.S. POWs and MIAs in the territory of the former Soviet Union. At that time, there were reports that U.S. POWs from the Vietnam War had been transferred to the Soviet Union. Later, the U.S. and Russian governments agreed that the USRJC should also support efforts by the Russians to identify and return the remains of Russian military personnel lost in Afghanistan and other local conflicts, as well as memorialize Imperial Russian and Soviet era service members who remain buried in the U.S.
The USRJC is composed of currently serving and retired U.S. and Russian government officials from the executive and legislative branches. The U.S. has been led by General Foglesong since he was appointed to that position in 2006. Other U.S. commissioners are two senators and two representatives, one from each major party, as well representatives from the National Archives, DIA, DoD, State Department and a non-voting executive secretary. The Russians, with Vostrotin, has been composed of as many as 43 officials, including its active duty cadre which roughly reflects the U.S. representatives including at least one intelligence service official, which to date has been the chief or deputy chief of the KGB/FSB Archives and officials from the Ministries of Defense, Foreign Affairs, Russian archives, the state Duma and veterans organizations.
The most substantive work of the USRJC was accomplished during the Yeltsin years from 1992-99. During that time through bilateral negotiations, open lines of communication between DoD elements obtained information from Russian and the former Soviet Union archives and interviews that contributed to the recovery and identification of the remains of 31 U.S. servicemen from the territory of the former Soviet Unit, its former Warsaw Pact allies and China.
USRJC activities during the Putin-Medvedev years became more difficult and problematic due to the increasingly complex political atmosphere and bureaucratic roadblocks encountered during U.S. attempts to obtain improved access to Russian archives. During those difficult times, key members of the USRJC remained in contact with initiatives to get back on track leading to the 20th Plenum held in 2016.
Today, the four working groups have begun discussing cases of mutual interest. The WWII Working Group discussed a possible U.S. bomber lost on Bering Island, possible memorialization of the USS Herring, a submarine sunk near Matua Island in the Kuril Islands, and Soviet servicemen missing in Norway during WWII. The Korean War Working Group discussed in detail the case of SSG Joseph Dougherty, Capt. Harry Moore, access to the files of the Soviet Air Force Operational Group. The Cold War Working Group renewed efforts to obtain more research in Russian archives to discuss American aircraft shot down in 1951 and 1952.
During the Vietnam War Working Group session, the U.S. side led by McKeague, provided updated information on Southeast Asia MIAs while the Russians discussed the methodology of archival research used by Russian archivists and information on the role of Soviet advisors during the Vietnam War. Of particular interest to special operation forces from Vietnam, U.S. officials requested renewed emphasis on “Special Group” records and emphasized once again that research be expanded to include the Security Service and Military Intelligence archives. On Jan. 1, 2018, there are still 1,602 Americans listed as MIA in Southeast Asia from the Vietnam War.
The 21st Plenum ended with a joint resolve to formalize quarterly meeting schedules for the individual working groups and to establish a joint protocol listing initiatives by the two sides promised during the November Moscow meeting that will be signed by General Colonel Vostrotin and Foglesong in February.
That evening, U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation Jon Huntsman and his wife hosted a reception for the Russian and U.S. commissioners, observers and staff at their official residence, Spaso House. Two days later, Ambassador Huntsman hosted a meeting with Wallace, Mills-Griffiths and DPAA’s longtime Russia specialist Dr. Jim Connell and senior DPAA staff member Svetlana Shevchenko. The observers were impressed with Huntsman’s commitment to the POW/MIA issue in Southeast Asia.
One longtime observer of U.S./Russian relations told SOFREP that the USRJC has proven to be a vehicle for useful dialogue between Russian and U.S. factions since its formation in 1992. It has weathered every crisis in the bi-lateral relationship since 1992 and still provides a conduit for cooperation on a sensitive, complex issue whose humanitarian nature is well understood by all parties involved in the commission as well as veterans and family advocacy organizations.
Editor’s note: if you would like to read more from John Stryker Meyer, check out his book “SOG Chronicles: Volume One” here on Amazon — there he sheds light on the untold stories of Green Berets behind enemy lines in Vietnam, conducting harrowing missions with little to no support.
Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.