What does the “Z” symbol mean on Russian tanks, fan clothing?

Gymnast Ivan Kuliak, convicted foreign agent Maria Butina and supporters of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sported the “Z” symbol. But what does that mean?

The Z sign and the words ‘we don’t leave ours behind’ are seen in Saint Petersburg, Russia. PA

The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) has announced that it will open disciplinary proceedings against Russian artistic gymnast Ivan Kuliak for his “shocking behaviour” in displaying a symbol of support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine during an event in Doha.

At the Gymnastics World Cup in Doha, Kuliak sported a ‘Z’ on his shirt as he stood next to Ukrainian gold medalist Illia Kovtun. Kuliak, 20, had “Z” prominently displayed – a move that was not well received by fellow competitors and the sporting body.

“The International Gymnastics Federation confirms that it will ask the Gymnastics Ethics Foundation to initiate disciplinary proceedings against … Kuliak following his shocking behavior during the Apparatus World Cup,” the FIG said in a statement on Sunday.

This decision comes a few days after the FIG canceled all its events in Russia and Belarus, while specifying that no new events will be organized there until further notice. At the same time, Russian and Belarusian gymnasts are excluded from competitions.

“The FIG adopted new measures against Russia and Belarus on March 4. As of March 7, 2022, Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials, including judges, are no longer allowed to participate in FIG competitions or FIG-sanctioned competitions,” the statement added.

What does the “Z” represent?

The “Z”, a letter that does not exist in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, was daubed on Russian tanks and vehicles that invaded Ukraine. The symbol came to indicate support for the invasion.

Without official confirmation, there is only speculation behind what “Z” might mean. Kamil Galeev, a former Galina Starovoitova Fellow at the political think tank The Wilson Center, tweeted that some interpreted the “Z” as short for “za pobedy” – the Russian term for “victory”. Others have guessed that the “Z” is short for “zapad” (or west) and is meant to mean westbound infantry.

The symbol has been sported by pro-Russian far-right supporters. What started as a demarcation on Russian military vehicles has become a symbol to express support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Cars and businesses in Russia displayed the “Z” symbol.

A group of Russian protesters in Leningrad were filmed wearing hoodies with a white “Z” and the words “We don’t give up on ours”.

Maria Butina, convicted for being an unregistered foreign agent and current member of the Russian Assembly (Duma), was seen in a video removing her blazer and drawing a “Z” on her lapel.

What little public support Russia has received has come from a few thousand in Belgrade. On March 4, a crowd of pro-Russian far-right supporters held up signs emblazoned with a “Z”.

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A protester paints the “Z” sign on a street in Belgrade, in reference to Russian tanks marked with the letter. AFP

Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine – which began on February 24 – has been condemned around the world. The violence has driven more than 1.5 million Ukrainians to flee abroad and triggered sweeping sanctions aimed at crippling Russia’s economy.

(with agency contributions)

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