The internet, the illicit hacking of computer records and their availability to journalists, and open source intelligence (OSINT) teams have changed the work of embassy-based spies forever.  

A case in Denmark this month makes this plain. A Russian GRU agent with what seems a particularly nasty history, Colonel Vladimir Grekov, was identified by a Danish-Dutch team of investigative journalists, and his identity was published. The same day, Denmark ordered Russia to cut its embassy personnel in Copenhagen, with the government citing “repeated Russian attempts to include visa requests for Russian intelligence officers.” 

Grekov is the sort of man no one wants in their country, especially armed with the established diplomatic privileges shielding him from arrest and prosecution. A specialist in behind-the-lines warfare and sabotage, he was posted to Copenhagen in February. It seems odd that he was ever allowed into Denmark.   

Grekov, the Russian military attaché, was sent after his predecessor and 14 other Russian embassy staff were expelled last year after they were all exposed as spies. 

Exhibiting the casual arrogance that has for decades characterized Russia’s dealings with smaller European states, it replaced him with another senior intelligence officer. 

Journalists from the Danish newspaper Information and Dutch NRC secured Grekov’s service records via the Dossier Center. These showed his background in the airborne VDV forces and the GRU. Danish intelligence analyst Jacob Kaarsbo from the think tank Europa, and a former analyst in the Danish Military Intelligence Agency (FE), said he was certain that Grekov’s service records indicated his involvement in subversive hybrid warfare activities. “This is a type of officer who is not only gathering intelligence.” 

Grekov’s background is in the VDV’s notorious, elite 28337 Spetznaz unit. It specializes in operations behind enemy lines, sabotage, and ambush tactics.  

It remains unclear exactly where Grekov served in combat operations. The leaked records are not that detailed, but it is known that his unit was deployed to Georgia, Crimea, and Syria since the early 2000s. In February 2022, they were famously part of the disastrous attempt to seize the Hostomel airport just outside Kyiv, where the unit was cut to pieces by Ukrainian forces. 

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It is clear that Grekov has served in combat zones, even if the details are unclear. That’s because of the medals he wears on his chest. 

He has been photographed on official occasions in full dress uniform. Analysis reveals a number of awards only made for distinction in combat. As the years have passed, the number of medals has grown. Given the timeframe, they could only have been earned in Syria or Ukraine.  

It remains to be seen what will become of Grekov after the revelation of his problematic background — his expulsion has not been announced.  

But the speed of the Danish government’s action following the story’s publication indicates that he is now unwelcome and likely to be declared persona non grata.  

This won’t be the last time that a Russian spy is publicly unmasked and it is likely the Kremlin’s intelligence officers, and their spy-in-chief, will respond in kind with Western counterparts.  

That will make life harder for spies of all nationalities. Even so, the ordinary Western citizen may feel that’s a price worth paying. 

Dr Jakob Seerup is a curator and researcher at Bornholm Museum, Denmark.   

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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