IN CYRILLIC, THE letter “Z” is written “З”. But since Vladimir Putin launched his latest invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, the Latin form has proliferated inside Russia. Just days after the invasion, Maria Butina, a Russian spy-turned-politician, filmed a video of herself drawing Z on her coat. “Keep it up, brothers,” she declared. “We’re with you forever.” The governor of Kemerovo, a coal-mining region in Siberia unofficially called “Kuzbass” (“Кузбасс”’ in Cyrillic), decreed that its name would henceforth be rendered in a Cyrillic-Latin mix as “КуZбасс”. Ivan Kuliak, a Russian gymnast, plastered a Z on his uniform when he took the podium beside a Ukrainian competitor at the Gymnastics World Cup in Qatar on March 5th, causing the International Gymnastics Federation to start disciplinary proceedings against him. Why has the letter Z become a symbol of support for Vladimir Putin’s war?
As Russian forces assembled along Ukraine’s borders early this year, sharp-eyed observers of open-source intelligence noticed curious characters painted on the side of Russian tanks. Among them were the letter V, the letter Z inside a box, and a plain letter Z itself. The mysterious runes generated myriad theories: perhaps Z was shorthand for “zapad”, which means “west” in Russian (the direction Russian forces would be marching); maybe it indicated the Kremlin’s desire to take out Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Military analysts instead reckon that the letters correspond to particular parts of the Russian forces involved in the invasion. With more than 100 battalion tactical groups of between 600 and 1,000 troops from as far away as the Russian Far East operating in Ukraine, such markings may help to distinguish between them and their foes on the battlefield.
Since the fighting began, Russia’s state propaganda machine has turned the Z into the operation’s unofficial logo. Russia’s defence ministry has suggested that it stands for “za”, the Russian word for “for”, as in “for victory”. RT, a Russian propaganda network, began hawking T-shirts emblazoned with the letter. Vladimir Solovyov, a noxious state television host, has it plastered on his laptop in his latest videos. Pro-war graffiti spotted in Ekaterinburg, a mid-sized city on the edge of Siberia, features the letter prominently. Nationalist activists in Moscow organised a caravan of cars with Zs painted on them to circle the city. A children’s hospice in Kazan, a city in western Russia, lined patients up in a Z formation for a photograph. Expressing his support for Mr Putin, the director of the charity that runs the hospice, Vladimir Vavilov, told a local news agency that the “fascist” force in Ukraine, as Mr Putin has labelled the country’s democratically elected leadership, “can only be stopped with force, there is no other way, no mercy!”
The Z’s adoption several days into the operation suggests the planning for Russia’s information war may have been just as haphazard as the shooting war plans appear to have been. There is a particular irony to making a Latin letter the symbol of a war that Mr Putin has justified in part by spurious claims that the Russian language was under threat in Ukraine. The Z has never been associated with Mr Putin’s regime before, and has none of the long-cultivated symbolism of other notorious icons, such as the Nazi swastika, to which Ukraine’s defence minister has compared it. Yet the Z has already become a chilling shorthand. Opposition figures and others who have spoken out against the war inside Russia say they have found the letter scrawled on their apartments; agents from Russia’s security services left a Z inside the office of Memorial, a storied human-rights group, following a raid of the premises. Russian officials have adopted it to demonstrate allegiance to their leader. More than anything, Z is now for Putin. ■
Our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis can be found here.
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