The Russian Z: from military identifier to pro-war symbol

If you have been following coverage of Russian troops on TV or social media, you may have wondered what the thick brush-stroked Z markings, visible on much of the military equipment rolling into Ukraine, stand for.

All language uses symbols for representation and classification, just like names. But these symbols’ meaning can rapidly evolve, and the Russian Z launched during the invasion of Ukraine is a perfect example of such dynamic language significance.
The Z markings were first spotted in February as Russian vehicles and tanks assembled along the border. At the outset, some military experts hypothesized that the marks were primarily there to help identify troops in combat and reduce friendly fire, not unlike the stripes used during the Normandy landings in 1944.

Since then, the Russian invasion has acquired the nickname “Operation Z.” If the letter’s employment could not get any more ominous, the letter Z does not exist in the Cyrillic Russian alphabet. It does exist in Ukrainian.

The Armed Forces of Ukraine provided the following glossary of all the symbols used by the Russians and their corresponding meaning:

Z: Russian forces from the Eastern Military District
Z (enclosed in square): Russian forces from Crimea
O: Forces from Belarus
V: Marines
X: Forces from Chechnya
A: Special forces, including SOBR, Alpha Group, and the Special Operations Forces

On Instagram, the Russian Ministry of Defense posted that the Z symbol is an abbreviation of the phrase “for the victory” (Russian: за победу, romanized: za pobedu). The Putin regime has further pushed the symbol as a sign of national pride, and it has further evolved into a public pro-war symbol.

Some are using the Russian Z symbol, invented just last month, to represent new Russian ideology and national identity, displaying it on cars, in the metro, and in video clips praising Putin’s campaign.

On Sunday, in Moscow, a Z convoy was organized in support of the troops involved in the military operations in Ukraine and reportedly stretched for 12 kilometers.

Also last weekend, Russian athlete Ivan Kuliak, who finished third in the parallel bars final at the Apparatus World Cup in Doha caused international outrage as he displayed the letter Z on the front of his outfit standing on the podium next to Ukrainian rival Illia Kovtun, who won the gold.

The letter Z has effectively become the Kremlin’s promotional icon for war.

Stefan Huyghe
Stefan Huyghe is Vice President of Localization at Communicaid Inc. where he focuses on running high-level operations, workflow optimization, database development, social selling and community building. He has over 20 years of experience working in the language industry is fluent in Dutch, French, German, and English.


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