Over the weekend, Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak’s decision to wear the “Z” symbol while on the World Cup podium, a symbol which is linked to support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, grew global attention.
The symbol has been sweeping social media after first appearing as an identifier on Russian tanks in the Russian invasion. The letter has now become a mainstream propaganda symbol for Russia, but what does it really mean?
What does the “Z” symbol mean?
The letter “Z” doesn’t even exist in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet.
The symbol was first spotted while being painted on Russian military vehicles weeks prior to the invasion of Ukraine.
Some say the symbol was used to hype up support for the invasion among the Russian population.
“Z is a letter that Russian Military are putting on their vehicles departing to Ukraine,” academician Kamil Galeev, a Galina Starovoitova Fellow, said on Twitter. “Some interpret Z as ‘Za pobedy’ (for victory). Others as ‘Zapad’ (West).”
Nevertheless, the “symbol invented just a few days ago became a symbol of new Russian ideology and national identity,” Galeev said.
Where was the symbolic “Z” last seen?
Russian forces have widely used the letter “Z” as an identifying symbol on their vehicles in Ukraine following the country’s invasion. It was also spotted on Russian tanks in the Syrian civil war, however, while ordinary Russians have been painting the symbol on billboards and onto walls, in a show of support for the invasion.
Black SUV vehicles flew “Z” flags as they rode in a convoy along a highway in support for Putin’s actions in the country.
— The Eurasianist ☦️ (@Russ_Warrior) March 6, 2022
Kuliak finished third in the parallel bars final at the Apparatus World Cup in Doha and displayed the letter “Z” on the front of his outfit as he stood on the podium next to Ukrainian rival Illia Kovtun, who won the gold, in a ugly, provocative move that was criticized around the world.
Russian military makes Z letters out of badges of killed Ukrainian soldiers pic.twitter.com/zGYFXuIhl8
— Kamil Galeev (@kamilkazani) March 6, 2022
Russians who support the invasion will now sometimes add a “Z” in their names or logos on their social media profiles. The “Z” finger sign is also reportedly popular among Russian streamers online.
The symbol has been adopted by Russian nationalists, including instagram influencers, while pro-Putin politicians Mikhail Delyagin and Maria Butina have also been spotted wearing “Z” memorabilia.
Two propaganda videos have also appeared showing hundreds of Russians in identical sweatshirts emblazoned with a white “Z.” In them, they chant slogans like “For Russia, for the President!” and “For Russia, for Putin!”
Is “Z” a symbolic war tactic of Russia?
“Often these symbols will be location-based — they will be communicating where a unit is heading,” professor Michael Clarke, the former director of the defense think tank Rusi, said in an interview with Sky News. “If they were only to mark the vehicles as being Russian, you could just use one symbol.”
“The fact that they are different tells you more — they are probably signs which tell you which units are heading to the northeast or northwest of a district, for example,” Clarke added.
There is also some indication that “Z” could also be used to stop “friendly fire” between other Russian combat vehicles, as the Russian and Ukrainian tanks are of the same model. In addition, “Z” symbols have also been painted on Ukrainian front doors in areas that have been successfully taken by Russian forces.