Putin’s World War Z Has Created a New Swastika

Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters
Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters

What started out as curious markings slapped in white paint on Russian tanks and trucks has now become a symbol of Vladimir Putin’s own version of World War Z.

Now, the “Z” has become akin to a new “swastika” or symbol of hatred and is showing up everywhere supporters of Russia’s uninvited invasion of Ukraine can be found.

Kamil Galeev, a Galina Starovoitova Fellow at Woodrow Wilson Center, has been curating examples of the creepy character’s use on Twitter. “‘Z’ is a letter that Russian Military are putting on their vehicles departing to Ukraine. Some interpret ‘Z’ as ‘Za pobedy’ (for victory). Others as ‘Zapad’ (West). Anyway, this symbol invented just a few days ago became a symbol of new Russian ideology and national identity,” he tweeted before the invasion. Now Galeev believes the symbol means Putin has taken inspiration from the world’s worst tyrants, including Benito Mussolini. “To put it simply, it’s going full fascist,” he tweeted. “Authorities launched a propaganda campaign to gain popular support for their invasion of Ukraine and they’re getting lots of it.”

Indeed, the symbol is likely not directly tied to Mussolini’s fasces symbol that also sported a “Z” any more than it is a reference to the 2013 Brad Pitt film World War Z, which premiered at the Moscow film festival that year—though it could be argued that Russian troops are not so different from the zombie invasion the film is based on.

But it certainly is gaining popular appeal. Over the weekend Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak was seen wearing a white “Z” on his leotard as he stood next to Ukraine’s Kovtun Illia, who had just won the gold in the Gymnastics World Cup event in Doha, Qatar.

Severely ill Russian children at a cancer center in the city of Kazan were reportedly made to line up in the “Z” formation for a photograph that has been widely distributed in social media. The badges of dead Ukrainian soldiers have also been photographed lined up in the “Z” formation, and the letter has shown up on flags, on trucks, and in convoys of supposed supporters of Putin’s war.

There is even a video of Russian spy Marina Butina, who pleaded guilty in 2018 to conspiracy to act as a foreign agent, drawing one on the lapel of her jacket.

It is difficult to say if the letter, which may have been first used to simply identify Russian military hardware to distinguish them from Ukrainian machines, has any other hidden meaning. The letter “Z” does not exist in Cyrillic Russian script, but it has now become the most prominent symbol of Russia’s senseless war.

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