Latvian commuters were left standing baffled this week after discovering that someone had removed their bus benches in the middle of the night. According to Latvia’s public broadcaster, 15 benches were sawn off in a forested area west of Riga between Tukums and Dobele by unknown persons for unknown reasons.
Russian state media and Kremlin-connected social media accounts were quick to offer their own explanation, however, asserting that the benches had been stolen for firewood as Latvians face a difficult winter without Russian energy.
There are more than a few problems with that explanation, however.
For a start, the benches were varnished making them dangerously unsuited for firewood. They were also unsheltered so even more unsuitable. It’s unlikely any Latvian using firewood to heat their home wouldn’t know either of these. Also, the benches were stolen over quite a wide area making the fuel cost of collecting them uneconomical when compared to the reasonably cheap cost of actual firewood of an equivalent amount. Added to this is the fact that Latvia is heavily forested, especially in the area where these thefts took place. Further eyebrows were raised by the way in which the benches were laboriously sawed, which added to the drama of the photos, yet the benches could have been unscrewed. As a final irony, the weather has actually been unseasonably warm in the Baltic states this autumn, while energy prices are relatively stable.
It’s as if the vandal or vandals chose the worst possible way in which to acquire the worst possible firewood.
For Kremlin propaganda, however, the story provided a visual illustration to support its narrative that Europe is suffering from sanctions, such as on energy, imposed in response to Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine.
There has been a pattern of disinformation attempts in the Baltic states recently in which fabricated local incidents have been used to support false Kremlin narratives in the Russian media, such as the fake Estonian ‘exit form’ (previously reported by Propastop) that was ridiculed across social media for its poor attempt to imitate Estonian in a way that appeared to be a machine translation directly from Russian.
One possibility is that vandals were responsible for removing the benches purely for mischief, which was then exploited by Russian media, but it seems unlikely that vandals would find any joy in a long night of work to do this.
As it happens, this story has actually already been used within Kremlin propaganda in recent weeks in an entirely false story about Germany.
Russian state TV and Kremlin-connected social media accounts also pushed a story that Germans have been chopping down trees in Berlin’s largest park, Tiergarten, to keep warm. The source cited by RT for that story was a Bloomberg article that was hidden to most readers behind a paywall. However, the Bloomberg article actually talked about this happening in the aftermath of World War 2 and made clear in its very next sentence that it had no relation to Germany’s current energy crisis. A Newsweek article pointed this out in a fact checking article and suggested – overgenerously – that it’s possible that Russian media accidentally mistranslated it.
In reality, Europe has remained more united and more resilient around the need to end energy dependence on Russia than previously predicted, especially by Russia, helping ensure that this is the last winter in which Russia can play these cards.