According to the Guardian, the origins of the symbol, sported by athletes and popping up on social media, are a mystery, but several theories have been proposed.
Open source analysts and military experts first spotted the mysterious Z-shaped letter hand-painted on Russian tanks and military trucks massed on the Ukrainian border on 19 February, leading to widespread speculation among western experts as to what the letter meant.
As Russia’s invasion began, more military hardware was spotted emblazoned with Zs, as well as other letters, including O, X, A and V.
The letters seen on the hardware were usually framed by squares, triangles, and other painted shapes. As a letter, Z does not exist in the Cyrillic Russian alphabet; rather, a letter resembling the figure 3 represents the “z” sound.
The most popular theory used by military experts to explain the letters is that they were written according to the respective areas where the Russian troops are usually stationed, with Z potentially standing for Zapad (west).
Others believe the letters were drawn in an attempt to avoid friendly fire, while some pro-Kremlin Russian military experts have speculated that the letter Z stands for the name of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and the letter V for Vladimir Putin.
The Russian defense ministry itself has not commented on any of the theories, and instead posted on its Instagram channel that Z meant Za pobedu (“for victory”) and V stood for “power of truth”.
In the past two weeks, Z has gone from a military marking to the main symbol of public support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russia / Ukraine Poll
Just three days after the invasion, the Kremlin-funded state network RT announced on its social media channels that it was selling Z merchandise, including T-shirts and hoodies, to show support for Russian troops. Since then, countless flashmobs across the country have been organised by the authorities, in which young Russians are seen wearing a Z shirt while displaying their support for the war. The Z letter has also been painted on large Soviet-era apartment blocks and posted on street advertisement signs.
A number of schools have also posted images of children standing in a Z formation. One image that has been circulating online since Sunday showed terminally ill children from a hospice in the southern city of Kazan forming a Z to support the invasion of Ukraine.
Officials eager to show their support for the war have even pledged to include the letter in the names of their region. Sergei Tsivilev, head of the Kemerovo region, announced that he had decided to rename the region and add the letter Z to the region, which might now be listed as KuZbass.
The symbol has also had some limited exposure outside Russia. On Friday, thousands of Serbs waving Russian flags and carrying Z letters marched through Belgrade to the Russian embassy in a show of public support for Moscow after its invasion of Ukraine. And on Saturday, the Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak sported the Z insignia as he stood next to Ukraine’s Kovtun Illia, the gold medallist at a gymnastics World Cup event in Doha.