The letter Z has become a Russian symbol of patriotism and aggression - here’s what it means
What started as a military marking has soon become a clear sign that you want war
A Russian gymnast became the latest tool in the country's propaganda campaign when he took to the podium at the World Cup in Doha on Sunday, with the letter 'Z' emblazoned on his chest.
The same day, pictures emerged of kids standing in the snow to form the now ominous symbol at a hospice in the city of Kazan, in the Tatarstan region of Russia.
In less than two weeks the letter has taken on a life of its own, coming to signify aggression and patriotism in support of Vladimir Putin's war, having first mysteriously appeared on the side of his war machines as they rolled into Ukraine where they began an offensive on February 24.
But what does the "Z" actually mean and where will it appear next?
When and where was the "Z" symbol first spotted?
Images showing the letter "Z" started circulating in the days before Russia officially invaded Ukraine. Tanks, weapons, supply vehicles, and fuel trucks were spotted with 'Z' markings while travelling to the Ukraine border.
It is unclear exactly when the letter "Z" became significant amongst Russian forces. But back in late February, Aric Toler, reporter from the Netherlands-based investigative journalism group Bellingcat, said his agency had "been monitoring this stuff non-stop for eight years" and had not seen the symbol before.
Though some reports do suggest the symbol has previously been spotted on Russian tanks in the Syrian civil war.
— NEXTA (@nexta_tv) February 25, 2022
Why the letter "Z" and what does it actually mean?
Russia's use of the letter "Z" can appear confusing, given it does not even exist in the Cyrillic Russian alphabet. But there are a number of reasons why this specific letter is likely to have been chosen.
As Russian analyst Kamil Galeev explained, some have been interpreting the letter "Z" to stand for "Za pobedy" (for victory), while others think it may stand for ‘Zapad' (for West).
“Anyway, this symbol invented just a few days ago became a symbol of new Russian ideology and national identity,” he wrote in a post back in February.
"Z" is a letter that Russian Military are putting on their vehicles departing to Ukraine. Some interpret "Z" as "Za pobedy" (for victory). Others - as "Zapad" (West). Anyway, this symbol invented just a few days ago became a symbol of new Russian ideology and national identity pic.twitter.com/iWuBPhhdEb
— Kamil Galeev (@kamilkazani) March 6, 2022
Then there's the practicality argument. Ukrainian forces use similar Russian-made equipment, so Russian forces may simply be using the symbol to make it clear who not to shoot at.
"It's vital that any attacking force can be distinguished, particularly from the air where Russian forces will have complete control," a military insider based in Kyiv explained to The Sun.
The mystery surrounding the ‘Z’ could be further complicated by how it is presented. The letter often appears written in white and positioned inside a white circle, though some pictures have shown a red and black striped ‘Z’ painted onto the Russian flag.
Professor Michael Clarke, former director of the defence think tank Rusi, told Sky News he thought the symbols “will be location-based – they will be communicating where a unit is heading".
“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 north-east or north-west of a district, for example," he said.
A graphic used by The Daily Mail suggested that the letter ‘Z’ within a square represents ‘Forces from Crimea’, and the letter ‘Z’ on its own means ‘Eastern Military District’.
Whether the reasons be propaganda or practicality - it seems the symbol has proved successful in achieving both.
Emily Ferris, Research Fellow Russia and Eurasia at RUSI, told BBC: "Often with propaganda the simplest things catch on the quickest," she says. "It looks rather intimidating and quite stark. From an aesthetic perspective, it's a very powerful symbol."
What are the consequences for those wearing it?
Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak certainly wanted to bring the symbol to the world’s attention last weekend when he stood on the podium at the World Cup in Doha in a national-flag-inspired vest with a 'Z' on the chest.
The 20-year-old had won a bronze medal on the parallel bars, while Ukrainian Ilia Kovtun took gold. Kuliak, who has a history with the military and is said to have received training with the Russian army within the past year, is now facing disciplinary action.
Just saw that Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak wore 'Z' symbol at the World Cup in Doha yesterday to show his support for the war in Ukraine. Can't think of a more disgusting thing to do and a better reason to ban Russia from sporting events altogether instead of current half measures pic.twitter.com/1rmV5UNQnR
— Tadeusz Giczan (@TadeuszGiczan) March 6, 2022
Kuliak's “shocking behaviour" has been condemned by the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), which confirmed it will ask the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation to open disciplinary proceedings against the athlete.
Who else has been spotted wearing it?
A number of other pro-war politicians, influencers, and activists have shared photos of themselves proudly wearing the letter 'Z'.
One of those is Russian MP Maria Butina, who was convicted in the US in 2018 for acting as a foreign agent.
Captioning a picture she posted with colleagues in 'Z' t-shirts last week, Butina wrote: "The team in support of our army and president! Let's get to work guys!”
Russian politician Mikhail Delyagin also wore a ‘Z’ badge in a recent meeting.
'Z' merchandise is even being sold by the Kremlin-funded TV channel Russia Today, with unisex T-shirts on sale for £1,190 roubles (£8).
Why were children pictured wearing the symbol?
Pictures of sick children and their mothers standing outside a Russian hospice in the shape of the letter ‘Z’ also emerged over the weekend.
The stunt, which took place in the city of Kazan, was organised by Vladimir Vavilov - chairman of the cancer charity that runs the hospice.
🔴Taken from the Latin alphabet 'Z' has become a symbol of Vladimir Putin's supporters https://t.co/mebHQnCeA3
— Telegraph World News (@TelegraphWorld) March 7, 2022
Vavilov took a photo using a drone before posting it on the hospice website, where he wrote: "Our patients and entire team took part in it, about 60 people in total. People lined up in the form of the letter ‘Z’. In our lefthand we held leaflets with the flags of the LPR, DPR, Russia and Tatarstan and we clenched our right hand into a fist."
Where can we expect to see the symbol next?
Members of the public are reportedly increasingly being spotted showing off the symbol in Russia.
Hundreds of cars drove around Russia’s main cities on Sunday, The Telegraph reported, honking their horns and drawing attention to the ‘Z’ symbol they had on their cars. Videos on social media show Russians waving flags and chanting “For Russia, for Putin!" - their black jumpers contrasting with the bright white ‘Z’ symbols boldly printed on the front of them.
— The Eurasianist ☦️ (@Russ_Warrior) March 6, 2022
Russian military makes Z letters out of badges of killed Ukrainian soldiers pic.twitter.com/zGYFXuIhl8
— Kamil Galeev (@kamilkazani) March 6, 2022
It is, of course, worth noting that a lot of Russians do not support the war - with over 4,000 detained at anti-war protests across the country on Sunday .
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