Since it was spotted painted on tanks crossing into Ukraine, the final letter of the Latin alphabet has swiftly become a symbol of Russian nationalism.
You’ll often see it where you see support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war: “Z” is emblazoned on billboards in major Russian cities, and on some Russia supporters’ cars, where it doubles as a target for supporters of Ukrainian democracy. The Russian state news outlet RT started selling “Z” merch. A Russian children’s hospice staged a photograph where people stood in a “Z” formation outside in the snow. Maria Butina, the accused Russian spy, recorded herself drawing a “Z” in white marker on her blazer. A large group of young Russian adults filmed an eerie flag-waving video wearing identical black shirts stamped with the letter “Z” and a hashtag translating to “we don’t abandon our own.”
It’s earned a new nickname in some corners of the internet: “zwastika.”
So why the letter Z? It doesn’t exist in the Cyrillic alphabet, which is used in Slavic languages. In Russian, the “Z” sound is made by a character more closely resembling the numeral “3.” But over the last two weeks, the “Z” cropped up on the front of a Russian gymnast’s uniform as he took third place next to the Ukrainian first-place winner ― an act the sport’s governing body called “shocking.”
Although the “Z” has taken on a life of its own, HuffPost spoke with experts who said the letter painted on tanks and trucks primarily functions as a practical way for Russian soldiers to identify Russian vehicles. The Ukrainian military and the Russian military have “basically identical inventories,” said Simon Miles, a history and Slavic studies professor at Duke University.
“And everyone paints them green. So you can’t look at the silhouette of a vehicle and say, you know, that’s friendly,” he said.
“Identify friend or foe” has a shorthand in military parlance ― “IFF.”
In Russia, the invasion of Ukraine is being framed as a “special military operation” ― not a full-blown war ― to liberate the supposedly oppressed and, bizarrely, to “de-Nazify” a country that is led by a Jewish president. Western authorities believe Putin thought the mission would go quickly. (It has not.)
“It’s even more important when you’ve got high-speed warfare to have those types of signals so that people don’t fire on their own,” Miles said. “You want to be able to quickly, at a glance, say, ‘OK, those are my people. I’m supposed to be following them.’ Or, ‘Oh, shoot, I’ve gotten lost, and I’m following a battalion that isn’t mine.’ Because that does happen.”
Much of the fighting initially took place at night, and white paint can be reflective. The American military used a similar strategy at the start of the Iraq War, adding chevrons to the sides of tanks.
Other letters have been spotted, too ― “O” and “V” among them ― leading to speculation that they stand for the locations where the troops are usually stationed in Russia or Belarus.
“These are sort of sub-campaigns, basically just different theaters of action,” said Julian Waller, a Russia analyst with the Virginia-based research group CNA. It isn’t clear whether most Russian tanks are painted with “Z” or if that just happened to be the most photographed.
Some theorize that “Z” stands for “zapad,” or the Russian word for West, meaning the troops in those vehicles came from a Western part of the country. Others have alleged that it stands for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is believed to be a top target for Russian special forces. Speaking on the floor of the United Nations, the Ukrainian ambassador claimed the “Z” stood for “zveri,” the Russian word for animals, according to The New York Times, prompting a heated exchange with his Russian counterpart.
Miles said he wasn’t sure whether the letter stood for anything. Rather, it could just be a recognizable symbol that’s easy to draw fast.
Ronald G. Suny, a history and political science professor at the University of Michigan, told HuffPost he thought it might stand for “za,” meaning “for” or “in favor of.”
According to The New Yorker, the Russian Defense Ministry offered several explanations along these lines on its Instagram account: “for victory,” “for truth,” “for peace” and “for the children of Donbas,” an eastern region of Ukraine where Russian officials falsely claim people have been victims of genocide.
Miles was skeptical of the Instagram page. “Yeah, I don’t know. Those guys lie a lot,” he said.
There is little doubt that the war is not going according to Putin’s plan. The Ukrainians have proven to be resilient adversaries, and the West has responded with an unprecedented level of sanctions crippling the Russian economy and all but sealing its people off from the rest of the world. Seizing on the sudden interest in “Z” among Russians, some have cloaked it in another symbol, the black-and-orange Ribbon of St. George used to commemorate World War II ― or as it’s also known in Russia, the Great Patriotic War. The effect is to underscore the Russian strongman’s falsehoods about Ukrainian Nazis.
“Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has had a lot of trouble trying to figure out its own national identity,” Suny said. “Putin has been creating these historical screeds to drum up the idea of this Russian world, and we’re all brothers with the Ukrainians, and so forth.”
“But there’s an empty hole there, a vacuum. So they’re looking for symbols,” he said. “The only thing they can really latch onto ― very artificially, very dishonestly ― is World War II. So this unprovoked invasion becomes a fight against Nazis.”
“Now, who would believe that?” he went on. “Well, the older generation in Russia seems to be believing it.”
It’s difficult to tell what proportion of the Russian population supports Putin’s war, since people may be wary of speaking their minds. The longer sanctions continue to hold, cutting Russia off from large swaths of the internet, the longer many Russians may be exposed to what state-sponsored media is telling them.
“You know,” Suny added, “propaganda works.”