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.
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
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”.
Russia’s defence ministry, with totally normal imagery here. pic.twitter.com/eziYnOQB32— Shashank Joshi (@shashj) March 4, 2022
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.
Inside Russia, malls and OOH ads promoting Putin’s Operation Z inside Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/3pBO7OOLVO— Bo Mbindwane (@mbindwane) March 3, 2022
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.
Nothing to see here— Francis Scarr (@francska1) February 26, 2022
Just Russian state broadcaster @RT_com selling merchandise endorsing the war in Ukraine
The painted "Z" marking has been seen on Russian tanks and armoured vehicles involved in the invasion pic.twitter.com/9LIi2teArx
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.
Just another day in the life of Maria Butina:— Francis Scarr (@francska1) March 3, 2022
Drawing a white "Z" marking on your lapel to show solidarity with the invasion of Ukraine pic.twitter.com/raYG3kRznT
Flash mobs across the country have been organised too, where young Russians are seen wearing Z shirts while displaying their support for the war.
Putin took a decision to start this war. But he got a wide support of the Russian people. Nobody's forcing them to participate in these shows of support, they could totally skip it. But they cheer. They cheer, because they feel good, they feel proud. Russia became great again pic.twitter.com/XkFHTlDq6m— Kamil Galeev (@kamilkazani) March 6, 2022
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.
1/2 Kazan Hospice held a flash mob with children patients, their parents and staff in support of the Russian military special operation in Ukraine.Russia forced sick children to go outside in the freezing cold to get into the letter "Z".#Ukraine @EmmanuelMacron@OlafScholz @UN pic.twitter.com/epX3iuq2Pv— Musaeva Roza 🇰🇿🇺🇦 (@musaeva_roza) March 5, 2022
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.
Photos coming out of tonight's pro-Russian protests in Belgrade are quite something.— Arnesa Buljušmić-Kustura (@Rrrrnessa) March 5, 2022
-Chetnik Flags (fascist & nationalist group)
-Ratko Mladic mentions (ofc)
-Russia & Serbia brotherhood chants
-glorification of Putin as a saviour pic.twitter.com/6XdFzxwD8V
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.
Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak wearing the “Z” pro-invasion symbol on his shirt while sharing a podium with a Ukrainian rival on Saturday.— Megha Mohan (@meghamohan) March 6, 2022
Kuliak finished third - behind winner Ukraine's Illia Kovtun in the parallel bars at a World Cup event in Doha. pic.twitter.com/evtG1iEBgq
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”.
UN Ukrainian Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya on Russia displaying a “Z” on military vehicles:— The Recount (@therecount) March 7, 2022
“Some interpret Z as ‘Za pobedy’ in Russian, or ‘for victory’ in English. Some say it is ‘Zapad’ in Russian, or ‘West’ in English. I would insist it is Z for ‘zver’ … ‘beasts’ in English.” pic.twitter.com/VvtfBUcNYZ
Some online have even compared it to a swastika, and dubbed Putin a “21st century Hitler”.
Russians have chosen the letter Z as the symbol for their invasion of Ukraine. It is marking the Russian military vehicles and is widely used by the supporters of the war in Russia.— Olga Rudenko (@olya_rudenko) March 5, 2022
I don't understand why they didn't go for the full swastika.
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.
The Azov Regiment. How is this a good thing. Take a look at its neo Nazi insignia. https://t.co/dKBcx9s868— three dogs (@threedogsonekid) March 9, 2022
Never one to miss out on a market opportunity, Amazon (through a third-party seller) appears to be retailing Azov Battalion merch.