Russia-Ukraine war, the latest blow to an already unstable world amid COVID-19, has now lasted for 14 days with tanks and Russian vehicles becoming a common sight in war-ravaged Ukraine. However, these military vehicles were seen sporting a “Z” symbol painted on the sides as they roamed in major Ukrainian cities. A flurry of images also emerged on social media showing the ‘Z’ symbol painted with white on green coloured Russian tanks. Furthermore, the mark has raised speculations of being the pro-war symbol because it was also seen particularly among the ones who are supporting Russia’s invasion into Ukraine.
When the ‘Z’ symbol was first spotted?
According to The Guardian, the open-source analysts and military experts first spotted the mysterious Z-shaped thick brushstroke on Russian tanks and military trucks massed on the Ukrainian border on 19 February. At the time, days before Russian President Vladimir Putin officially announced the ‘special’ military operation in Ukraine saying that it would demilitarise Kyiv. However, the mark since late February triggered widespread speculation among western experts about the actual meaning of the ‘Z’ letter in the Russia-Ukraine war.
While the ‘Z’ symbol is the most spotted symbol on Russian tanks, other letters were seen emblazoned on military hardware used by Russia in its invasion including O, X, A and V. These letters were mostly framed by squares, triangles and other such shapes. It is also pertinent to note that as a letter, Z does not exist in the Cyrillic Russian alphabet but a letter resembling figure 3 represents the “z” sound.
What is the meaning of the ‘Z’ symbol?
According to Kamil Galeev, who is an independent researcher and former fellow at a non-partisan policy think tank named Wilson Center, “Z” could be interpreted as “Za pobedy” which is Russian for “for victory” or as “Zapad” for “West”. CNN separately stated that digital sleuths have suggested that “Z” might stand for Russia’s self-styled “target number one” which is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
“Z” is a letter that Russian Military are putting on their vehicles departing to Ukraine. Some interpret “Z” as “Za pobedy” (for victory). Others – as “Zapad” (West). Anyway, this symbol invented just a few days ago became a symbol of new Russian ideology and national identity pic.twitter.com/iWuBPhhdEb
— Kamil Galeev (@kamilkazani) March 6, 2022
Aric Toler, a researcher with Bellingcat, an open-source investigative operation tracking the Russian military for eight years, said on 20 February that the group had no idea what the “Z” symbol meant and had not seen it used ever before. Toler said on Twitter, “So, assume the worst, I guess/fear”.
Re: the “Zorro Squad”, or all the Russian military vehicles that (starting today) have Latin Z’s painted on their sides. Ruslan has been monitoring this stuff nonstop for 8 years and has no idea what they are, and hasn’t seen it before. So, assume the worst, I guess/fear. https://t.co/PsiWQLjjDX
— Aric Toler (@AricToler) February 20, 2022
You’re going to start seeing the letter Z on T-shirts, and bumperstickers, flags too no doubt. Probably Facebook pages and Twitter too. If you see it, they’re identifying themselves as pro Russia/pro invasion. It’s already starting. pic.twitter.com/WAWsOZPqqY
— The Decision (@AKMarkB) March 7, 2022
How did ‘Z’ become a pro-war symbol?
However, in the days that followed experts first spotted the ‘Z’ symbol, the mysterious sign emerged as a sign popular among the people backing the war. Especially after Putin’s 24 February announcement which led to the Russian military’s onslaught on Ukraine, the symbol gained popularity. CNN stated that analysts have described the popularity of the ‘Z’ symbol as the unfurling of a chilling new nationalist movement.
As per reports, Russians have daubed the ‘Z’ on their vehicles, sported black clothing with the same symbol emblazoned in white. Some of them were fashioning makeshift “Z” brooches on lapels. All this has indicated some kind of popular support for Putin and his efforts to expand Moscow’s influence by capturing Ukraine. In a thread on Twitter, Galeev had even said Russian authorities “launched a propaganda campaign to gain popular support for their invasion of Ukraine and they’re getting lots of it.”
The West including the United States has also accused Russia of propaganda to justify its invasion into Ukraine. In the 14 days of the Russia-Ukraine war, ‘Z’ symbol has gone significantly from just a military marking to the main symbol of public support for Russia’s military aggression in its neighbouring nation.
Just three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Kremlin-funded state network RT had announced on social media channels that it was shelling ‘Z’ merchandise including T-shirts and hoodies to back Russian troops. As per The Guardian, the letter has been painted on large Soviet-era apartment blocks and posted on street advertising signs. Notably, a number of schools have also posted images of children standing in a Z formation.
Is ‘Z’ spotted outside Russia?
Gradually, the symbol has got some limited exposure outside Russia. Last week, thousands of people in Serbia waved Russian flags and carried Z letters while marching through Belgrade to the Russian embassy in public support for Moscow after its invasion of Ukraine. In one of the most prominent incidents involving the symbol, the Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak sported the Z insignia as he stood next to Ukraine’s Kovtun Illia, the gold medallist at a gymnastics World Cup event in Doha.