Why is there a ‘Z’ on Russian tanks? What the Z symbol means on vehicles, and why gymnast Ivan Kuliak wore one

The symbols has been seen worn by sports stars and adorned on Russian tanks, but what does it mean?

The world has come together to stand in support of Ukraine after neighbouring Russia invaded the country.

Famous historical landmarks across the world have been lit up in Ukrainian blue and yellow, and high profile football clubs have used their platform to highlight their support before games.

While the Ukrainian flag has become synonymous with the image of strength in the West, those in the pro-Russian camp have adopted their own symbol.

The ‘Z’ symbol hit the headline after Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak wore a makeshift sign on his outfit while appearing next to a Ukrainian contestant.

Here’s everything you need to know about the symbol.

‘Z’ has become a symbol for pro-Russian support of the invasion of Ukraine. (Credit: Getty)‘Z’ has become a symbol for pro-Russian support of the invasion of Ukraine. (Credit: Getty)
‘Z’ has become a symbol for pro-Russian support of the invasion of Ukraine. (Credit: Getty)

What is the ‘Z’ symbol?

The ‘Z’ symbol has become a signifier for those who are staunchly pro-Russian in the invasion of Ukraine.

The sign has been adopted by politicians, sports stars, as well as being seen on advertising boards and bus shelters in Russia.

One of the most prominent places it has been spotted is on the Russian tanks themselves which have been rolling into Ukraine.

Why is the ‘Z’ symbol on the side of Russian tanks?

The symbol was first seen on the first tanks which invaded Ukraine on 24 February.

Initially it was believed that the ‘Z’ was actually a ‘2’, in reference to the 22 February - which had the long date of 22/02/2022.

This was when an agreement was ratified by Russia which recognised the independence of separatist Ukrainian regions Luhansk and Donetsk.

However, this theory has been scrapped in favour of another.

Experts believe that it was a simple icon which allowed Russian troops to be able to identify their own tanks during the invasion.

Speaking to Russian magazine Life, Russian special forces veteran Sergey Kuvykin said: “Symbols like these are used - a ‘Z’ in a square, a ‘Z’ in a circle, a ‘Z’ with a star or simply ‘Z’ on its own.”

Mr Kuvykin added that these variations are sometimes used to help soldiers who are not in contact with others to identify that the tanks are part of a group who are supposed to be there at that time.

Why has the ‘Z’ sign become a pro-Russian symbol?

As a result of the prominent placement of ‘Z’ on Russian tanks, supporters of the invasion have taken the letter and used it as a symbol of support for the assault on Ukraine.

Speaking to the BBC, Emily Ferris, a Research Fellow for Russia and Eurasia at RUSI, said that the simplicity of the symbol has led to the adoption by pro-Russian supporters.

She said: “Often with propaganda the simplest things catch on the quickest.

“It looks rather intimidating and quite stark. From an aesthetic perspective, it’s a very powerful symbol.”

It is also believed that the sign represents the phrase ‘for victory’ as written in Russian.

Russian politicians have been releasing videos instructing people how to use the symbol on work uniforms to show quiet support of the assault.

It hit the headlines after Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak wore a handmade ‘Z’ symbol on the front of his competing outfit at the Doha World Cup competition.

The 20-year-old was condemned by the International Gymnastics Federation after he was pictured wearing the symbol beside gold medal winning Ukrainian gymnast Kovtun Illia.

In a statement, the governing body said: “The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) confirms that it will ask the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation to open disciplinary proceedings against Ivan Kuliak following his shocking behaviour at the Apparatus World Cup in Doha, Qatar.

As a result of the connotations towards Russian supremacy in the conflict, it adopted by far right groups who have demonstrated in favour of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

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