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There are these two symbols (Z & V) which are considered as Russian prowar symbols which are appearing on Russian Army vehicles and being worn by Russians supporting the war. There is some speculation that they could mean Zapad and Vostok.

Does it have anything to do with the Zapad 2017 War Game?

What is the meaning of these symbols?

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    The problem with this is that there many, some conflicting, stories of the meaning behind these. The primary and most often given reason is for IFF, to avoid fratricide. Other reasons are: units origin, units destination, encouragement, units ready, etc but given the similarity of military vehicles used on the ground, the first is most likeliest. There is no final word on its meaning, as yet. Mar 8, 2022 at 19:54
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    World War Z perhaps. Mar 11, 2022 at 16:18
  • I see some very big Z's above Putin here: i.stack.imgur.com/06LdA.jpg (screenshot from CNN)
    – uhoh
    Mar 18, 2022 at 23:53

4 Answers 4

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The most common explanation, usually from those with military experience, is that it is a form of IFF - identification, friend or foe.

When Ukraine was part of the USSR, it had substantial manufacturing capacity, not least in terms of military vehicles and equipment. After the breakup, Ukraine found itself with both factories and a large amount of now ex-Soviet inventory.

Since then it has manufactured its own military equipment but their ancestry is usually quite obvious.

To that end, with both Russia and Ukraine meeting on the battleground, they would be using equipment, that to the layman's eye, or to civilians, to those untrained, and to those without time to confirm identity, looked identical to each other.

In some ways the only other way to identify would have been camouflage painted on but in fog of war that might not always work as well. This is further complicated by the fact that some Russian units were seen with very similar camouflage.

So to that end, Russian vehicles were daubed with Z on them to identify them as friendly to their own forces. Note that it was done last minute (some reports 21 Feb), just before rolling in, so that the OPFOR would not be aware of them or find out their meaning well before.

Example: Both countries use variants of the bronyetransportyor, armored transporter: enter image description here

https://www.dialog.ua/ukr/war/246774_1645441351

Since they were first written about the markings and their meaning has had lots of variations seen, and the most copy pasted meaning version is this:

https://twitter.com/RuslanLeviev/status/1497216201616936964?s=20&t=6u1E6Xwood4CvzVuJXZRlw

Z - ZVO (ZVO), V - VVO (VVO), △ - SVO, / - most likely CVO. Zorro is no longer Zorro.

or

https://zaxid.net/ukrayinski_viyskovi_pokazali_yak_vorog_markuye_svoyu_tehniku_n1537191

"Z" is the symbol for the Russian armed forces in the east, who are involved in operations in the Donetsk region,the

"Z" in a square or circle identifies Russian vehicles coming from Crimea,

the circle or "O" identifies vehicles from Belarus - some interpretations suggest that these are Belarusian vehicles, but this is not confirmed,

the "V" is a symbol for Marines - other interpretations indicate armed forces from the Brest region of Belarus,the symbol

"X" is used by the Chechens,

"A" is the symbol of special operations forces (SPETSNAZ).

enter image description here

(When the markings were first spotted before the invasion, some observers thought it representative of pre-invasion markings, meaning: 'preparations completed'}

Other common theories:

https://www.marca.com/en/lifestyle/world-news/2022/03/01/621e58eee2704e3e4f8b45f7.html

"Often these symbols will be location-based - they will communicate where the unit is going," Michael Clarke, former director of defence of the think tank RUSI, told Sky.

"They are probably signals that tell which units are heading to the northeast or northwest of a district, for example."

https://www.hitc.com/en-gb/2022/03/07/what-does-the-z-on-russian-tanks-mean/

Without official confirmation, there is only speculation behind what "Z" could mean. Kamil Galeev, a former Galina Starovoitova Fellow at policy think tank The Wilson Center, tweeted that some interpreted the "Z" as short for "za pobedy" — the Russian term for "victory." Others have guessed the "Z" is short for "zapad" (or west) and is meant to signify west-bound infantry.

https://fortune.com/2022/03/07/russia-z-tank-marking-how-letter-became-symbol-pro-ukraine-war-invasion/

How Z came to be Experts suggest the symbol was first used as a unit identification marking to avoid friendly fire between Russians. Usage of the letter Z was first reported on Feb. 28 by U.S. armed forces defense journal Task & Purpose, which argued it was a way of distinguishing Russians from Ukrainians, as both sides use similar military equipment.

The journal notes that in the fog of war, “a Russian T-72 main battle tank may look a lot like a Ukrainian T-80 through long-range sights.”

The Russian Defense Ministry issued a statement on March 3, noting that Z stood for Za pobedu, or “For victory,” while V stood for Sila v pravde, or “Our strength is in truth.”

But the usage of more than one letter has left some believing the letter signifies the end location or mission of the vehicle. Former Marine Capt. Rob Lee, who spent a year with a defense-focused think tank in Moscow and is now a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, notes the Z symbol is “different from what you normally see on Russian vehicles.”

“They’re obviously something new. And the most likely reason they would have put these kinds of symbols on is to indicate a different task force, a different echelon,” (Note: See later on for Russian/Soviet era formation markings, which could be related)

Since its introduction as a military fixture, the letter Z can now be found anywhere, from T-shirts to car stickers. Online usernames have capitalized the letter to show support, and even children in hospice were reportedly lined up to form a Z shape.

https://taskandpurpose.com/analysis/russian-military-equipment-white-markings/

Here’s what those mysterious white ‘Z’ markings on Russian military equipment may mean (FEB 24, 2022)

“Bottom line is the ‘Z’ markings (and others like it) are a deconfliction measure to help prevent fratricide, or friendly fire incidents,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Tyson Wetzel, senior Air Force fellow with The Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, D.C. Because Russian warplanes, such as SU-25 Frogfoots and SU-34 Fullbacks, fly too quickly for their pilots to recognize the “Z” markings, these symbols are more likely meant to deter fratricide from Russian attack helicopters, artillery, rocket launchers, and mortars, Wetzel said.

https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/44413/mysterious-symbols-are-appearing-on-russian-military-vehicles-near-ukraine

Mysterious Symbols Are Appearing On Russian Military Vehicles Near Ukraine (FEBRUARY 22, 2022)

So far, photos and videos that have appeared on social media show a range of different symbols, the implication presumably being that these will be used for rapid identification on and around the battlefield. This is especially important when large numbers of vehicles are headed in different directions and require marshalling by troops or other security forces on the ground who may not be immediately familiar with their units and objectives.

https://jauns.lv/raksts/arzemes/488981-z-apli-un-citas-figuras-kas-ir-noslepumainie-simboli-kuri-rota-krievu-militaro-tehniku-pie-ukrainas

There are a great many other speculative meanings posited (WWZ, Zelensky, victory, point of no return, ready for invasion, etc) and most start with Z and do not count for the other letters seen.

Similar speculation:

Meanwhile, there are several communication groups on social networks, especially the Telegram, which bring together representatives and supporters of the separatist "republics" in Donbass, who are passionate about spreading the "Z" symbol as such a mysterious sign

enter image description here

..and there are occasional reports indicating that such markings were seen in Crimea in 2014 and in Syria.

I have not seen any such photos so unable to say, but it does remind me of this:

Russia's Use of Unmarked Troops in Crimea

Beginning in late February 2014, unmarked military personnel suddenly appeared in Crimea and, alongside Crimean "self-defense" forces, subsequently took control over key strategic and military facilities in the peninsula. The unexpected appearance of these unmarked soldiers-referred to by some commentators as the "little green men scenario" -left both the Ukrainian authorities and western states puzzled about the affiliation of these troops.

https://scholarship.law.vanderbilt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1213&context=vjtl

(Illegally Evading Attribution? Russia's Use of Unmarked Troops in Crimea and International Humanitarian Law)

Identifying the actors on the Ukrainian battlefields and outlining their legal responsibilities and obligations is not simply an academic exercise.

Further, crystallizing the battlefield status of the actors eliminates any later claims of ignorance, while simultaneously increasing the likelihood of accountability.

https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1321&context=ils

(The Combatant Status of the “Little Green Men” and Other Participants in the Ukraine Conflict)

..and so, if it is true such markings were also used in Crimea, it may have also been for IFF from their own side since the Russians in particular were lacking the standard identification features.

Maybe related:

Back in 2017, this was posted when looking at tactical markings of de-mothballed equipment turning up in the region:

https://informnapalm.org/en/valuyki-boguchar-common-markings-military-equipment-operated-russian-army-lpr/

And, harking back to Soviet vehicle markings:

At regimental level, formation identification markings, which seemed to be temporary but often left were spotted alongside vehicle numbers as well as formation symbols.

Consisting of simple shapes usually a circle, square or rectangle. The addition of smaller markers inside increased the availability of symbol variation.

http://army.armor.kiev.ua/hist/opoznav.shtml

enter image description here

enter image description here

Each division was assigned one specific geometric figure. Letters, numbers, dots, lines, sectors were applied inside the divisional sign, which denoted the regiment, a separate battalion of the division.

In the regiments, it was common practice to give numbers not in a row, but to encrypt them.

There were several more such encryption systems. Here everything depended on the imagination of the regiment's deputy commander (the regiment commander usually did not interfere in this himself).

As a rule, nothing else was required, and there were no other identification marks or numbers on the armored vehicles.

Which might itself give rise to the scarcity of confirmation about the actual meaning whilst the operation is continuing...

enter image description here

...........

As the other answer mentions, as time goes on the apparent meaning has evolved in its representation:

Recently it seems that these symbols, usually the Z, are being used for propaganda purposes:

enter image description here

  1. for our people
  2. for the victory
  3. our strength is that we represent the truth
  4. the objective will be completed

https://strana.today/news/379919-chto-oznachajut-bukva-z-i-v-na-voennoj-tekhnike-armii-rossii.html

Edit:

With regards to Zapad 2017:

Zapad's were large scale military exercises carried out by the former Soviet Union, roughly every four years, and most recently by Russia.

But like Vostok, Tsentr, and Kavkaz, these are named for the region of the country in which they are held.

As such each exercise has had focus on different aspects of military action (2009 was an attack against Poland), and both Zapad 2017 and Zapad 2021 for example was fought in an 'active' defense role, the latter being much larger.

https://www.europeanleadershipnetwork.org/commentary/the-political-logic-of-the-zapad-exercises/

https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2021/09/23/zapad-2021-what-we-learned-from-russias-massive-military-drills-a75127

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    “Our strength is in truth.” Now, that is ironic. Also, why would deserters use a sign??? Or is it written by someone else, after the deserters have been found? Mar 9, 2022 at 7:09
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    запад means West
    – Squala
    Mar 9, 2022 at 9:46
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    Just curious...why use the Roman letters rather than the Cyrillic? Mar 9, 2022 at 16:32
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    @CristobolPolychronopolis in all likelihood because they're not Roman letters. The earliest indications seem to be that they're just symbols to identify Russian military groups. For this purpose, they just use simple easily recognisable patterns. The claim that they stand for Russian words seems to have come later, and makes no sense, if this was the aim, there'd be no reason not to use з & в rather than z & v). Of course, once that narrative took off, it's been appropriated for propaganda purposes
    – Tristan
    Mar 10, 2022 at 10:42
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    @Tristan furthermore, wouldn't it make more sense to use the initial of the noun rather than the preposition? In English we use V for victory, not F for "for victory." Z could just as easily mean "for breakfast" or "for grandma's favorite grandson" as "for victory."
    – phoog
    Mar 28, 2022 at 21:29
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They are military identification symbols, intended to reduce the number of "friendly fire" incidents, i.e. attacking your own side.

Simple shapes will have been chosen so they are easy for troops in the field to apply at the last moment (to make it harder for Ukrainian forces to copy them). Claims that they represent this, that or the other meaning are just post-facto attempts to extract some propaganda value out of a military necessity.

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  • This seems like it'd only work for the very first encounter - it'd be trivial for the opposing forces to copy them after that, especially since the tanks aren't even making minimal efforts at stealth, given how much footage we have of them on the ground just driving by regular people on the street... Mar 9, 2022 at 19:08
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    I think that if it had gone to plan, then they would only have been in conflict for around 3 days, and then they would have withdrawn to the separatists states, that or occupy, and then it wouldn't matter... Mar 9, 2022 at 21:09
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    @DarrelHoffman It may have seemed to be a quick and simple measure for Russian forces expecting minimal resistance as happened in the 2014 annexation of Crimea. As blobbymcblobby documented, Ukraine has similar looking military vehicles so there's no incentive to copy Russian IFF symbols in case Ukrainian forces, many recently recruited and with limited training and communications equipment, attack their own vehicles.
    – Graham Nye
    Mar 9, 2022 at 21:10
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There is now an official answer by the russian MOD:

enter image description here

The translation:

Dear Evgeny Viktorovich! Your appeal to the Minister of Defense Russian Federation, on “issues of explaining the meaning of signs "Z" and "V" and the reasons for their use on military equipment Armed Forces of the Russian Federation during special military operation on behalf of considered. On the merits of the questions asked, the following is reported. These signs are not official military symbols (designations) and do not carry a special load. However, at present, these signs are recognizable and positively received by military personnel and citizens Russian Federation. Donetsk and Luhansk folk republics and many others

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  • Sounds like a continuation of the propaganda push reflected in the poster campaigns that were released after the initial invasion. May 20, 2022 at 0:31
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A possible long-term reason is to create animus for the letters 'Z' and 'V,' as symbols of the war.

Since Russia believed that it was going to win when it started the war, it was also planning on incorporating Ukraine into its territory.

Had it succeeded, it would have been a helpful long-term strategy to create the myth that Russia was loved and Ukraine was reviled world-wide.

'V' and 'Z' are English-language initials of Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine.

Propaganda doesn't always rely on pure falsehoods. Sometimes it relies on mixing falsehoods with truths (see, for example, pacing and leading ).

Had Russia succeeded in its aggression, it could have repurposed the V-Z imagery and iconography of the international outcry against its aggression enter image description here

by creating the myth that it was an outcry against Ukraine's Zelensky.

In the long term, details and emotions of the moment are forgotten. So as long as the prevailing message in Russia would remain that V-Z animus was anti-Ukraine animus, that's what most people, who don't care to dwell on details, would believe.

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