Day 6

How the letter Z has become a symbol of support for Russia's invasion of Ukraine

In an apparent bid to rally support for President Vladimir Putin, the letter Z has emerged as a sign of approval for Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But its meaning is hard to decipher, experts say.

'It's a code, but we don't know what it's for,' said international relations expert

A person walks past the symbol "Z" painted on a bus stop in support of the Russian armed forces in Saint Petersburg, Russia, on March 4, 2022. Though its origins are unknown, the symbol has gained support in recent weeks. (Reuters)

In an apparent bid to rally support for President Vladimir Putin, the letter Z has emerged as a sign of approval for Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

But the meaning of Z — a Latin letter which doesn't appear in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, but sounds similar to the Cyrillic letter з — is hard to decipher, experts say. Various interpretations have spread across social media and among experts.

"We started to notice armoured vehicles in Russia with the Latin letter Z — sometimes just the letter, sometimes in a box — just before the start of the invasion. And there was a lot of speculation as to what that possibly was related to," said Paul Goode, a Carleton University associate professor in Russian studies.

Military vehicles have also been spotted with other letters, such as O, X, A and V, according to the Guardian.

Beyond its presence on some Russian uniforms and tanks, the letter has been rapidly adopted to endorse Russia's attacks on Ukraine. 

Russians have begun painting it on personal vehicles and adding it to social media profile pictures. The letter has also appeared in viral videos and images — one featuring a group of children from a Russian hospice standing together in the shape of the letter.

T-shirts emblazoned with a large Z are even available from Russian state broadcaster RT.

As a result, Z has taken on a life of its own across social networks.

"It has formed part of the … official propaganda campaign that uses social media in order to push forward this more sort of patriotic use of the Z as a symbol in support of what President Putin is doing in Ukraine," said Aglaya Snetkov, lecturer in international politics at University College of London in the U.K.

Interpretations abound

The exact meaning of Z is unknown, but experts, researchers and others have suggested a few possibilities. 

"It's not like anyone knows," said Snetkov. "It's a code, but we don't know what it's for." 

Initial interpretations indicated that it could signal where troops were from or what training exercises they completed, she explained. 

Another interpretation is that it may be a way of distinguishing between Russian and Ukrainian troops given that the military uniforms of the two countries share similarities, Goode said.

'Z' has become a military insignia of sorts, with the symbol appearing on military equipment like tanks, and on uniforms. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Others have said Z could stand for zapad (запад in Russian) meaning "west," in reference to forces moving west across Ukraine.

Z, pointing to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, or as a reference to за, meaning "for" in Russian — for victory, for Russia, etc. — have also been raised as possibilities. 

Posts on the Instagram account of Russia's Defence Ministry seemingly support the latter interpretation. 

The fact Z does not appear in the Cyrillic alphabet makes its use "awkward" for Russians, according to Goode. Still, he believes that many Russians have adopted it as a show of loyalty — especially among those with limited access to information about the invasion from outside Russia.

"Adopting that symbol is a way of simply just avoiding being labelled as an oppositionist or an extremist or a collaborator," Goode said.

'It's somewhat ambiguous'

While they believe the letter Z's emergence is part of a co-ordinated campaign by supporters of Putin's regime, experts say its influence among Russians remains to be seen.

Snetkov says in Russia, public opinion is divided among two groups: vocal supporters of the invasion who have latched on to the symbol, and those opposing Russia's actions. 

Many more Russians are somewhere in the middle. "They're not as actively involved in the discussion of what is actually going on at the moment in Ukraine, or whether or not they're in support or against the presidential position of the war in Ukraine," she said.

The Russian government has yet to make an official statement about the symbol, but international relations expert Aglaya Snetkov believes it's a part of Russia's "official propaganda campaign." (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

Even among groups that would seemingly support the Kremlin's action in Ukraine, interest in the Z symbol is slow to pick up.

Goode points to one pro-Russia group on the social network VK as an example of the uncertainty that surrounds Z. 

"There are individual users in that group that have started to use it for their avatar. But it's not something that's really caught hold," he said.

"What that suggests to me is that … people don't know what to do with it. It's somewhat ambiguous."

A woman walks past posters at a bus stop on Nevsky Prospekt in central Saint Petersburg bearing the letter 'z' in the colours of the ribbon of Saint George and the slogan 'We are proud of Russia! We are not ashamed!' The letter has become a symbol of support for Russian military action in Ukraine. (AFP/Getty Images)

Written by Jason Vermes. Interview with Aglaya Snetkov produced by Laurie Allan.