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The letter Z has become a symbol of Russia's war in Ukraine. But what does it mean?

In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Prior to that invasion, the letter “Z” was already being seen painted on tanks as well as other military vehicles massing near the border. This is because both Ukrainian and Russian militaries rely on Soviet era weapons that look a lot alike and painting the “Z” was a way to differentiate between them in order to prevent friendly fire. 

What People Have Speculated “Z” Means 

Since then the “Z” has been speculated to mean many things and has become a symbol for Russian support of the invasion. 

 

Alternatively, some analysts think the “Z” stood for Ukraine president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Given the difficulty Russia has had in successfully conquering Ukraine, largely due to locals’ fierce resistance, some have suggested that the symbol stands for other words such as "zhopa," meaning ass in a reference to strong Ukrainian resistance. Others speculate that the "Z" could stand for "zapad," which means west in Russian.

Serbian nationalists raise "Z" symbol in support of Russian invasion of Ukraine.

A thousand Serbian ultra nationalist supporters marched in Belgrade in support of the Russian attacks on Ukraine, some carrying banners with a white "Z." 

What the Russian State Says “Z” Means

Russia's state-controlled Channel One said that "Z" was a common marking on Russian military equipment. Another pro-Putin site, Tsargrad, told readers the simple marking could "avoid friendly fire" and couldn't be "mixed up with anything else".

 

Russian special forces veteran Sergey Kuvykin told the Russian magazine, Life, that different symbols signified different military units. "Symbols like these are used - a 'Z' in a square, a 'Z' in a circle, a 'Z' with a star or simply 'Z' on its own."

What the Russian State is Actually Using “Z” For

Authorities and state media have worked to appropriate “Z” as a symbol of support for Russia's army during what the Kremlin calls a "special military operation" in Ukraine.

 

Russia has a long history of using propaganda in order to increase feelings of nationalism and to encourage support of the Russian military.

For example, when Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula back in 2014, it was commonplace to see orange-and-black-striped ribbons of Saint George around Russia. The Russian government used the symbol to garner support for their questionable invasion. 

 

Now, Russia is recycling the same tactic by using “Z” as a symbol for support of the Russian government and military.

 

The Russian government has made a distinct effort to claim the “Z.” The official Instagram page for the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD), wrote that “Z” meant “For the victory,” “V” stands for “Our strength is in truth,” and “The task will be completed.”

So when you see the letter "Z" in reference to Russia, take it with a grain of salt and make sure it is not disinformation you are reading. 

 

*Note that in the Cyrillic alphabet—which is used in Russian—does not contain the letter “Z.”