What does the letter 'Z' written in white on Russian vehicles mean?

Thousands of Russian vehicles were painted with the symbol in mid-February prior to the war

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On Saturday, Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak created global controversy by wearing a 'Z' symbol on his sports vest and now faces “disciplinary proceedings” from the International Gymnastics Federation, which does not allow political symbols at sporting events.

But what does the ‘Z’ symbol mean? The letter has been painted in white on thousands of Russian military vehicles in the lead up to the Ukraine war.

What does the Russian 'Z' letter mean?

It has now become a symbol for Russian supporters of the invasion, thought by Russia analyst Kamil Galeev to mean “Za pobedy" (for victory), or possibly “Zapad” simply meaning west — an indicator of the Russian forces designated for the operation.

Some vehicles have been seen spray-painted with a large white 'V' symbol — thought by analysts to indicate origins from Russia’s east, or Vostok East Forces.

Some commentators have said that the order to paint the 'Z' doesn’t seem to have been very specific — the size and method of displaying the character has varied widely.

The symbols could also be used as an identifier of friendly forces, particularly important considering Ukrainian forces use similar Russian-made equipment.

This could also be a double-edged sword for the Russians. During the Normandy invasion in the Second World War, allied vehicles were marked with a white star in a circle, called the Allied Star, which some tank crews came to see as a liability and a possible target marker for the Germans.

Either way, the Z symbol has been adopted by Russian nationalists, including Instagram influencers, while politicians Mikhail Delyagin and Maria Butina have been spotted wearing Z badges and T-shirts.

Why do armed forces paint symbols on vehicles?

Prominent markings on invasion force vehicles are not uncommon throughout military history. In addition to the Allied Star, forces in Normandy painted black and white stripes on the wings of their aircraft.

The reason for this is that in 1943, during the allied invasion of Sicily, American ground forces shot down more than 20 troop cargo planes that were mistaken for German aircraft, killing nearly 100 men.

A low-tech solution would need to be found quickly and prominent painted markings were decided upon for large air formations.

Likewise, during the 1991 Gulf War when an international coalition liberated Kuwait from occupying Iraqi forces, allied vehicles were adorned with a black, inverted V symbol, which according to the US military, was to "reduce the risk of fratricide," or friendly fire.

Russia has also long used "invasion stripes," on tanks, painting a large white cross on the roofs of late Second World War period tanks as identifiers for friendly aircraft. Last year, there were concerns about a Russian attack on Ukraine when Russian tanks were seen near the border with freshly painted white stripes. Evidently, the Russians settled for letter markings.

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