Why Are Russians Wearing the Letter Z?

Russian vehicles entering Ukraine have been observed with a variety of symbols painted in white on their exteriors, but the letter “Z” in particular has become a symbol of the Russian invasion. Russian soldiers and civilians are embracing the letter as a show of support for the war effort, leading to widespread speculation about what the symbol actually means and what the implications may be of its adoption as a political statement.

Russians embrace the Z

Interest in the meaning of the symbol exploded after Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak was seen wearing a small “Z” on his leotard at a competition in Doha, Qatar.

Kuliak won bronze in parallel bars and says that he taped the “Z” to his leotard for the podium ceremony because the Ukrainian gymnasts were already making political statements and he wished to support his own country. The gold medal went to one of those Ukrainians, Illia Kovtun.

The gymnast’s attitude explains why the symbol has become popular with Russians and with people abroad who support Russia’s stance against NATO.

The “Z” is seen as an expression of support for Russian soldiers who are showing off the same symbol on their tanks and armored personnel characters.

Western depictions of the letter as “Putin’s swastika” are only reinforcing its status as a defiant patriotic symbol for Russians who support Putin and his war in Ukraine.

Are these Russians being brainwashed or coerced into showing their approval? That’s very unlikely, given that soldiers on the front lines and people abroad (who have access to Western media coverage of the war) are embracing the “Z” for the same purpose.

Does it actually mean anything?

As for the military’s use of various white symbols on their vehicles, the explanation likely isn’t too complicated.

The letters are definitely being used to identify vehicles as friendly for other Russians. The United States used the same method to prevent friendly fire in Iraq.

In this case, it’s even more important for the Russians to ensure that they don’t mistake each other for hostiles if they lose radio contact. The Ukrainian and Russian militaries use similar, and in some cases identical, equipment.

The individual Latin letters in use probably identify which invasion group a particular vehicle belongs to. “Z” has become the most recognizable and apparently represents the Eastern Military District.

Western media speculations about the letter referring to Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky are probably fanciful. If the “Z” stands for anything it might mean “West” or “for victory.”

Ivan Kuliak said that he was reading it as the latter option, which is probably the explanation preferred by most of the Russian civilians painting it on their cars and wearing it on their clothes.

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