The internet-driven conspiracy theories surrounding the death of rogue soldier Jürgen Conings in June this year were stoked by Russian intelligence, according to Michel Hofman, chief of the Belgian defence staff.
Conings disappeared in May, having left behind letters expressing the desire to commit some kind of attack, and to die in the ensuing conflict. The man was a soldier, based at a based in Limburg, and had stolen a number of armaments.
He remained at large for almost a month, despite a massive manhunt, and was found dead very close to where he was last traced. It was determined he had taken his own life shortly after disappearing.
The event triggered a flood of internet theories speculating about what had happened. These included such far-fetched scenarios as the troops who had taken part in the search had allegedly killed him or that he had never intended to go on the run but had been murdered and taken to the woods in a fake suicide scene.
Now Admiral Hofman, the most senior officer in the armed forces, has issued a statement saying that the various conspiracy theories surrounding the Conings affair are the result of activity by Russian trolls in the service of Russian intelligence.
Hofman went so far as to claim that the campaign was carried out "with the aim of destabilising western society and radicalising our people". If so, it appears to have been largely unsuccessful.
After the discovery of the body in June, a parade was organised without permission but went off without incident. There appear to have been no other effects of the whole affair. Conings was the sole casualty and died by his own hand. Security will doubtless be tightened at military posts, and there will be more vigilance over extremists of all sorts in the military – their presence should not come as a surprise – but that was already underway.
Yet Admiral Hofman's motive seems to be the desire to gain funding for a fully-fledged cyber-security division for the armed forces.
The request for funding, the VRT reports, has already been made to the government for a fully-equipped cyber-defence unit within the ministry.
However, it seems unlikely that this request will be granted. The Federal Government is in deadlock over budget questions, with a dispute over whether the deficit should be €2 billion or €3 billion, while families across the country are facing crippling energy price rises with no relief in sight.
In the meantime, the only evidence Hofman can offer that Russian intelligence stoked conspiracies is a statement from defence minister Ludivine Dedonder before the defence committee back in July, where she spoke of outside interference “to a limited extent” during the 2019 elections, the corona pandemic the vaccination campaign, and the Conings affair.