The insignia has been flaunted by politicians and athletes, seen on cars and advertising billboards, and promoted by youthful flash mobs.

As Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine fuels Western condemnation, Moscow’s attempts to counter it and mobilise pro-war sentiment is starting to take shape around a mysterious symbol: the letter “Z”.

It first drew attention when Z was painted on various Russian military vehicles amassed along the Russian border with Ukraine nearly a month ago. Following the Kremlin’s invasion on February 24, it was again seen on tanks and armoured vehicles on the battlefield, alongside other letters including O, X, A and V.

Apparently the letters indicate the respective areas where Russian troops are usually stationed, with Z standing for Zapad meaning west in Russian – in reference to the units entering Ukraine coming from the western part of the Russian military.

The Russian defence ministry has chosen not to officially comment, instead posting on its Instagram account that Z meant Za pobedu (“for victory”) and V stood for “power of truth”.

However within the past two weeks, it has been adopted for pro-war propaganda back home, rapidly taking on nationalist dimension showcasing public support for the Russian invasion.

Within a short span of time, Z began appearing on cars and clothing, and in images made by Russian troops.

Even advertising campaigns using billboards in large cities have featured a large Z created out of a black and orange St George ribbon, which is a symbol of the Russian military.

State-run news outlet RT spread the symbol early on, even announcing the sales of Z merchandise online, including T-shirts and hoodies to show support for Russian troops.

One Russian politician, Maria Butina, shared a video of how to write the insignia on a business jacket, "so you can go into work and show it to everyone without shouting about it,” she explained.

Flash mobs across the country have been organised too, where young Russians are seen wearing Z shirts while displaying their support for the war.

Even schools joined in, posting images of children standing in a Z formation. One that did the rounds online since Sunday showed terminally ill children from a hospice in the southern city of Kazan forming a Z.

The symbol has travelled beyond Russia’s borders too. On Friday, thousands of Serbs waving Russian flags and bearing Z shirts marched through Belgrade to the Russian embassy in support of the war.

On Saturday, it breached the sports world when Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak wore a Z on his uniform at a competition in Qatar that also included Ukrainian gymnasts. A disciplinary proceeding was opened against Kuliak shortly after by the International Gymnastics Federation.

On Monday, it provoked a sharp exchange at the UN Security Council, where Ukrainian ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya said that Z stood for “zveri,” or beast in Russian. His Russian counterpart, Vasily Nebenzya, retorted saying that the Russians “had their own opinion of who the animals were”.

Some online have even compared it to a swastika, and dubbed Putin a “21st century Hitler”.

Somewhat odd for a nationalist symbol, Z does not exist in the Cyrillic Russian alphabet; rather, a letter resembling the figure 3 represents the “z” sound.

Meanwhile, some Russians have taken to satirising the symbol, with anti-war protesters on Sunday holding signs with the word Zachem (“For what?”) and plenty of memes being shared online.

Controversial insignias haven’t been limited to Russia either.

In Ukraine, there has been much controversy over the Azov Battalion, an ultranationalist arm of the National Guard of Ukraine, who are accused of neo-Nazi beliefs.

Azov fighters continue to brandish the Wolfsangel insignia and Nazi-inspired black sun symbol.

Never one to miss out on a market opportunity, Amazon (through a third-party seller) appears to be retailing Azov Battalion merch.

Source: TRT World