Entering the third week of fighting, the international community looks upon Russia and Ukraine and its respective allies in what is to be a potential change in the world order. From the various letters you’ve seen on Russian tanks and military vehicles, the most common one being “Z,” to individuals that have taken center stage around the world quite literally, the war has been full of symbols used for various reasons.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was already famous in Ukraine due to his fame as a comedian, has been known as a heroic symbol of bravery around the world. On the other hand, Russia’s Putin had been touted as the 21st century’s new Hitler, drawing comparisons from deadly Nazi Germany. However, this is not where the comparisons stop.

The letter “Z” drawn on Russian tanks (and other vehicles) used to identify whether the vehicles are friendly or not, as well as to determine what point of origin they came from, are now nationalist, pro-war symbols in Russia. It is drawing comparisons to the Nazi Swastika, a logo still banned in Germany due to its horrid history.

What the “Z” symbol originally meant

If you had been watching videos or had viewed photos of the Russian forces advancing into Ukraine, you’ve probably seen those letters that are crudely painted on Russian tanks and military vehicles. SOFREP’s very own Sean Spoonts wrote about these letters last week and what they might mean. Before being a pro-war logo in Russia, the letters painted on Russian vehicles were used for the following:

  • Russian tanks, trucks, armored combat vehicles, and helicopters reportedly do not have radio-based combat ID systems, in marked contrast to the US military which employs them extensively. This shows how far behind the Russian forces have are with regard to their technology. Without these communication systems, they are left to visually identify which units are friendly to prevent friendly fire incidents. This is especially important as Russia and Ukraine both operate much of the same equipment.

So what do the letters mean?

  • Letter “X” means that the unit came from Ramzan Kadyrov’s Chechnya Region.
  • Letter “A” means they are part of the Russian Special Forces (SSO).
  • Letter “V” means the unit is from the Russian Marines.
  • Letter “O” means that the unit came from Belarus.
  • Letter “Z” represents units that are from the Eastern Military District.
  • Lastly, the letter “Z” with the square means that the unit came from the Southern Military District in Crimea.

There were also other interpretations of the Russian “Z,” such as the letter meaning “Za pobedy,” which means “for victory” in Russian, or “Zapad,” meaning “West,” as per a report by CNN. A far-flung interpretation of the “Z” would be “Zorro Squad” or maybe even “Zelensky.” However, we remain convinced that these letters are visual indicators describing their various parent commands, rather than gung-ho, motivational messages.

The “Z” letter as a symbol of Russian nationalist, pro-war pride

From a visual indicator of the location of origin, the Russians and those who are in favor of the war have now turned the letter “Z” symbol as a representation of Russian nationalist pride who support the Russian invasion — an eerily similar representation used by Nazi Germany during their years promoting the so-called Aryan race.

The most infamous “Z” pro-war symbol user is Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak. He had created a makeshift “Z” using tape and attached it to his leotard while he was standing next to Ukrainian athlete Illia Kovtun on the ceremony podium during the World Cup event in Doha, Qatar. Kovtun, who won gold, and Kuliak, who won bronze in the parallel bars portion of the event, proudly flashed the insignia in apparent support for his country’s military.

“The International Gymnastics Federation confirms that it will ask the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation to open disciplinary proceedings against male artistic gymnast Ivan Kuliak (RUS) following his shocking behavior at the Apparatus World Cup in Doha, Qatar,” said a statement from the Federation Internationale De Gymnastique. The Head of the Artistic Gymnastics Federation of Russia (FSGR), Vasily Titov, stated that he fully supports Kuliak.

The use of the letter “Z” has now been widespread across extremist groups in Russia, with pro-war individuals also putting the insignia on their cars, clothing, brooches, and on art, whether found as graffiti or online digital art. The letter was reportedly being painted on Soviet-era apartment blocks and signs on the streets.

Aside from it functioning as a pro-war symbol, it also represents people who fully support Russian President Vladimir Putin and his expansionist aims. Today, there is merchandise bearing the Z insignia being sold by state-funded network RT(which claims not to be), which include hoodies, and t-shirts, perhaps as a way to make money amidst their currency falling in value. Independent groups are also sporting similar clothing with the hashtag #СвоихНеБросаем meaning “We don’t abandon our own guys.”

Terminally ill children from a hospice in Kazan form the letter Z to support their military in their invasion of Ukraine (Emily Schrader). Source: https://twitter.com/emilykschrader/status/1500858806628241412
Terminally ill children from a hospice in Kazan form the letter Z to support their military in their invasion of Ukraine (Emily Schrader(@emilykschrader)|Twitter).

Even terminally ill Russian children are being bent to aid the Kremlin in its propanganda effort to paint the war as a patriotic effort. It was reported that a hospice in Kazan filled with children dying from cancer was instructed to line up and form a “Z” formation in an apparent propaganda opportunity for the children to “support their troops in Ukraine.”

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According to the Chairman of the cancer charity that was running the hospice, 60 people in total (including the children) participated in said event. He also said that they also had leaflets with the flags of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, Russia, and Tatarstan (the region where they live). They were later photographed with their fists held up in the air.

It was also reported that Russian politicians and journalists from state-run news networks wore the symbol “Z” on their formal wear and flak jackets, respectively. One of the more well-known Russians here in the U.S. was Maria Butina. Butina was a Russian spy who attempted to infiltrate conservative political circles before and after the 2016 elections in the United States. “Keep up the work, brothers. We are with you. Forever,” she said, in a video clip she posted on Telegram.

Another instance of a politician using the letter “Z” was Head of the Kemerovo region Sergei Tsivilev, who decided to rename his region to “KuZbass” in an apparent move to support the Russian military.

However, the use of the “Z” symbol has been slow to catch on with the general population. Its been largely confined to people and organizations that support Putin. As the movement emerged it was met with a backlash from other Russian citizens, who protested bearing the signs “Zachem,” which means “For what?” in ridicule of the “Z” being used as a patriotic symbol.

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