Why has Z become a symbol of Russian aggression and what does it mean?

A Russian gymnast’s “shocking” decision to wear a “Z” linked to support for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine while on the podium has drawn global attention to the symbol.

The Z symbol has been sweeping social media after first appearing as an identifier on Russian tanks.

But what does it mean and how has it become a mainstream propaganda symbol for the Kremlin - leading some commentators to describe it as “the new Swastika”.

What does Z mean?

The “Z”, a letter that does not exist in the Cyrillic Russian alphabet, was spotted being painted on Russian military vehicles weeks before the invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Some say the symbol was used to hype up support of the invasion from the Russian population.

Explaining the phenomenon on Twitter, Galina Starovoitova Fellow Kamil Galeev wrote: “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.”

Where has it been seen?

People watch as a military truck drives along a street in Armyansk (REUTERS)
People watch as a military truck drives along a street in Armyansk (REUTERS)

Russian forces have used the letter Z as an identifying symbol on their vehicles in Ukraine following Moscow’s invasion of its neighbour. It was also spotted on Russian tanks in the Syrian civil war.

Ordinary Russians have been painting the symbol on their billboards, bus stops, taxis, a funeral hearse and sketched onto walls in a seemingly voluntary show of support for the invasion.

Scores of black SUV vehicles flew flags with the Z symbol as they rode in convoy along a highway in support for Putin’s actions in their neighbouring country.

Athlete Ivan Kuliak finished third in the parallel bars final at the Apparatus World Cup in Doha over the weekend 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.

A man walks past the symbol
A man walks past the symbol

Russian soldiers have been reportedly using the badges gained after killing Ukrainian soldiers to form a Z in trophy photos.

Russian media and social media accounts who support the invasion sometimes add a Z in their names or logos.

The Z finger sign is also reportedly becoming popular among Russian streamers online.

Athlete Ivan Kuliak wearing the Z symbol (Social media image)
Athlete Ivan Kuliak wearing the Z symbol (Social media image)

lt has been adopted by Russian nationalists, including instagram influencers, while pro-Putin politicians Mikhail Delyagin and Maria Butina have been spotted wearing Z badges and T-shirts.

Two propaganda videos have also appeared showing hundreds of Russians in identical black sweatshirts emblazoned with a white Z.

“For Russia, for the President!” They chant in unison. “For Russia, for Putin!”

Why make terminal children form a Z?

In the city of Kazan, Vladimir Vavilov, chairman of a cancer charity that runs a hospice for sick children, reportedly organised for the children and their family to line up in a giant Z in the snow.

He is reported to have captured the stunt using a drone and posted it on the hospice website.

 (Twitter)
(Twitter)

“Our patients and entire team took part in it, about 60 people in total. People lined up in the form of the letter ‘Z’,” Mr Vavilov quoted as saying.

“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.”

Is Z part of Russian war tactics?

Professor Michael Clarke, former director of the defence think tank Rusi, told Sky News: “Often these symbols will be location-based – they will be communicating where a unit is heading.

A man finishes gluing a huge placard depicting a serviceman and reading
A man finishes gluing a huge placard depicting a serviceman and reading

“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.”

It could also be used to stop ‘friendly fire’ between other Russian combat vehicles, as the Russian and Ukrainian tanks are of the same model.

Z symbols have also been painted on Ukrainian front doors in areas successfully taken by Russian forces.