The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) is investigating Russian gymnast Ivan Kuliak for displaying the letter “Z” on the podium next to a Ukrainian competitor in Qatar. But what exactly does the symbol mean?

The “Z” is quickly becoming regarded as a staunchly pro-war symbol of President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in Russia. Politicians have worn it, and it can be seen on the sides of cars, vans, and advertising hoardings, as well as on bus shelters. Serbs have even used it at pro-Russian rallies in Belgrade. Photos have been widely circulated on social media.

According to Aglaya Snetkova, a lecturer in international politics at UCL’s School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, it has become a social media conversation. “In many ways, this demonstrates how much Russia is, or has been, a part of the global world.”

While zed is written differently in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet and looks like a 3, most Russians recognize Latin letters. According to Emily Ferris, Research Fellow Russia and Eurasia at RUSI, the “Z” is a powerful and easily identifiable symbol.

“With propaganda, sometimes the simplest things catch on the quickest,” she says. “It appears to be quite intimidating and stark. It’s a very powerful symbol in terms of aesthetics.”

The “Z” has spread in less than a fortnight among those who support President Putin’s invasion. In the central Russian city of Kazan, approximately 60 children and staff from a hospice were photographed outside in the snow, forming a giant “Z” in front of their building.

Several theories have circulated regarding the meaning of the “Z” symbol. It first came to light on social media when Russian tanks with “Z’s” on the side were spotted en route to Ukraine.

Initially, it was assumed that the “Z’s” represented the number “2” – the 22nd of February, 2022 (22/02/2022). That was the day Russia ratified an agreement with the self-proclaimed breakaway regions of eastern Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, on “friendship, cooperation, and mutual assistance.”

However, it is now thought that the symbol is simply a means for Russia’s military to identify its own forces. RUSI’s Emily Ferris says the Russian military marks its vehicles with Latin, rather than Cyrillic, letters.

Last week, viewers of Russia’s state-controlled Channel One were told that the letter “Z” was a common marking on Russian military equipment. Tsargrad, an Orthodox Christian pro-Putin website, said the simple marking could “avoid friendly fire” and couldn’t be “mixed up with anything else.”

Sergey Kuvykin, a Russian special forces veteran, told the Russian magazine website Life that different symbols represented different military units. “These symbols are used – a ‘Z’ in a square, a ‘Z’ in a circle, a ‘Z’ with a star, or simply a ‘Z’ on its own.” He stated that the markings assisted in ensuring that troops who were not in contact with other comrades were where they should be.

However, two experts who spoke to the Task and Purpose website are skeptical of the efficacy of daubing tanks with symbols. According to Air Force Lt Col Tyson Wetzel, a senior Air Force fellow with The Atlantic Council think tank in Washington DC, Russian warplanes would be flying too fast to see the white markings. Despite the fact that he agreed they were a “de-confliction measure to help prevent fratricide – or friendly fire – incidents.”

Former Marine Capt Rob Lee, who spent a year with a defense-focused think tank in Moscow and is now at King’s College London’s Department of War Studies, believes the most likely reason they would have put these symbols on is “to indicate a different task force, a different echelon.”

But the spread of “Z” in Russia has not only been because of spontaneity on social media – cautions Aglaya Snetkov from UCL. “It has also been pushed by the regime”.