The letter “Z” has emerged as a propaganda symbol in Russia’s attack on Ukraine and has appeared all over social media.
In Russia, the “Z” is seen as a staunchly pro-war symbol of President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It has been sported by politicians, seen on the sides of cars, vans, and advertising hoardings, as well as daubed on bus shelters.
The “Z” has also been seen in other places throughout Russia, including in newspapers, on billboards, and on merchandise, after RT, Russia’s state-owned media network announced in February that it was selling T-shirts and hoodies featuring the symbol.
Open source analysts and military experts first spotted the mysterious Z-shaped letter hand-painted on Russian tanks and military trucks massed on the Ukrainian border on February 19, leading to widespread speculation among western experts as to what the letter meant.
As Russia’s invasion began, more military hardware was spotted inscribed with Z’s, as well as other letters, including O, X, A, and V.
The letters seen on the hardware were usually framed by squares, triangles, and other painted shapes.As a letter, Z does not exist in the Cyrillic Russian alphabet, rather, a letter resembling figure 3 represents the “z” sound.
The most popular theory used by military experts to explain the letters is that they were written according to the respective areas where the Russian troops are usually stationed, with Z potentially standing for Zapad (west).
While some pro-Kremlin Russian military experts have speculated that the letter Z stands for the name of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the letter V for Vladimir Putin.
The Russian Defense Ministry has not confirmed what the symbols mean either, but they did a post on Instagram last week that the pro-war symbol stems from the Russian phrase “За победу”/“Za pobedu” which starts with a “Z” sound and means “for the victory.”
Lt. Col. Tyson Wetzel, from U.S. Air Force, explained to the military news outlet that “Z markings and others like it are a deconfliction measure to help prevent fratricide, or friendly fire incidents,” because military equipment used by Russians and Ukrainians is often indistinguishable.
Meanwhile, Ivan Kuliak, 20, a Russian gymnast, is facing disciplinary action for taping a Z to his kit during a medal ceremony at a World Cup event in Qatar. The bronze medalist provoked outrage when he then stood next to Ukrainian Illia Kovtun, who won gold.
While the International Gymnastics Federation has since said it’s investigating the gymnast for his “shocking behavior”, Kuliak has said that he doesn’t regret it, stating: “If there was a second chance, and I had a choice whether to go out with the letter “Z” on my chest or not, I would do the same.”
The symbol was also cynically used by a cancer charity that runs a hospice for sick children in the Russian city of Kazan. Vladimir Vavilov, the charity’s boss, is said to have arranged for children and their mothers to line up in a giant Z in the snow for a drone photo for the hospice website.
Vavilov said: “People lined up in the form of the letter Z. In our left hand, we held leaflets with the flags of the LPR, DPR, Russia, and Tatarstan, and we clenched our right hand into a fist.”
LPR and DPR stand for Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic, two pro-Russian areas of Ukraine that declared their independence in 2014.
Maria Butina, a Russian member of parliament who was jailed in the U.S. after being convicted for acting as a Russian agent and trying to infiltrate conservative politics near the 2016 election, recently shared a video of herself drawing a white “Z” on her blazer.
She says in the clip: “Keep up the work, brothers. We are with you. Forever.” Butina shared another photo of herself with colleagues donning black T-shirts emblazoned with the white letter.
Some Russians, however, have ridiculed Z. During countrywide rallies against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, some protesters were seen holding signs with the word Zachem (For what?). Russians have also taken to the internet to post various memes mocking Z.
More threateningly, Z has been used as an intimidation tactic against those who oppose the war. Members of the opposition art collective Pussy Riot, as well as the anti-war NGO Memorial, have said the Z symbol was painted on the door of their flat.
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