Russian 'Z' invasion symbol: What is it and why is it being used?

8 March 2022, 15:08

Russian and pro-Moscow forces have been seen using the Z marker
Russian and pro-Moscow forces have been seen using the Z marker. Picture: Alamy

By Will Taylor

Images and footage of invading Russian forces in Ukraine is rife with a common symbol on their military hardware.

Painted in white onto tanks, armoured carriers, artillery and lorries is a letter Z.

It's become one of the most widely-seen and recognisable motifs from the bloody conflict.

It has raised question about what the letter means and why the Russians and pro-Russian forces in Ukraine are using it – here is what we know.

Where is it seen?

Even before the invasion began, commentators were pointing out the 'Z' marking on the sides of Russian military vehicles.

Usually painted on in white, the symbol has appeared on all manner of vehicles used to invade Ukraine.

The symbol appears to be unique to Russia's forces that have been committed to the battle – and that could be the point.

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Why is it used?

Observers say it is being used as an identifier, a signal between Russian units that the vehicle is "friendly" – and not belonging to their enemy.

Ukraine and Russia were both part of the Soviet Union and use similar vehicles, a legacy from when their militaries were part of the communist state's forces.

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It's believed that to avoid Russians accidentally shooting at their own vehicles, mistaking them for Ukrainian defenders, the markings serve as a sign to avoid friendly fire.

What does it mean?

The symbol could have been randomly chosen as a distinct marker that would be easily recognisable by troops under fire.

There have also been some suggestions it could stand for "West" – Zapad in Russian – or "to victory", which is "za pobedu", as seen above.

The latter has been taken up by the Russian defence ministry on social media but it's not clear if that is where the symbol originates from.

Why is it controversial?

The prevalence of the symbol on Russian vehicles means it has been demonised with Ukraine supporters, with some even comparing it to the swastika.

While many Russians have protested against the invasion in cities across their country – risking arrest – some have picked up the logo in support of the war.

Ivan Kuliak, a Russian gymnast, came under investigation by the International Gymnastics Federation after he wore a white Z while he stood near a Ukrainian competitor during an event in Qatar.

He was roundly criticised for the gesture. Reports say the use of the symbol was even seen at a children's hospice in Russia, where terminally-ill children lined up to form a Z for a picture taken from high up.