A column of tanks marked with the Z symbol stretches into the distance as they proceed northwards along the Mariupol-Donetsk highway. (Photo by Maximilian Clarke/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
It’s an unfortunate moment to be a business owner whose company logo incorporates some form of the letter “Z.” But since Russian tanks emblazoned with the 26th letter of the English alphabet rumbled into Ukraine last month, “Z” has become increasingly associated with a kind of ugly nationalism that many European countries are all too familiar with. Since February, young nationalistic Russians rallying in support of the war and President Vladimir Putin have worn shirts with the letter Z—nicknamed the “zwastika” by critics—on them. It’s been painted on billboards. Kids have organized themselves into the letter Z. At a gymnastics World Cup event, Russia’s gymnast wore a large Z as he was photographed next to the gold medalist, who happened to be from Ukraine.
And TikTok accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers have been churning out Russian propaganda under the hashtag #Z and an emoji of the Russian flag. Supporters in other countries have also adopted it: American white nationalist Nick Fuentes, who has positioned himself as a staunch supporter of Putin and his invasion, has shared memes and hashtags referencing “Z.” Pro-invasion protesters marched in cities in Syria and in Serbia, many carrying placards with “Z” on them. On Monday, a spokesperson for Germany’s Interior Ministry announced that people who display the letter ‘Z’ in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may be subject to criminal prosecution. This could apply to anyone who defaces property with the symbol, holds it at public demonstrations, or posts it online. Anyone found guilty could be looking at hefty fines or up to three years in prison. Michael Roth, the chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, praised the news. "The Z has become a symbol of an authoritarian regime, which is conducting a terrible war of aggression, breaking international law, gagging freedom of expression, and making lies the norm," Roth tweeted. "Anyone in our country who uses the ‘Z’ is making themselves into a vassal of the Russian regime and must be punished."
The announcement came after several German states, including Bavaria and Lower Saxony, had already taken steps to ban the symbol. Lithuanian MPs are calling to ban the Z, which they say is being “used for intimidation and bullying”, and the “Georgian Ribbon” (a Russian military symbol). Estonian lawmakers are also considering a bill proposing a ban on the “Z” and the Georgian Ribbon. On Monday, Ukraine’s foreign minister called on more countries to follow suit. “I call on all states to criminalize the use of the ‘Z’ symbol as a way to publicly support Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” he wrote on Twitter. “Z” means Russian war crimes, bombed-out cities, thousands of murdered Ukrainians. Public support of this barbarism must be forbidden.”Meanwhile, some right-wingers, especially American “free speech” warriors, have declared the letter “Z” to be the latest victim of cancel culture. White supremacist Erik Striker (whose real name is Joseph Jordan) took to Telegram to deplore Germany’s announcement. “It's these liberal moral panics and witch hunts, rather than anything Vladimir Putin is doing, that are the source of instability in the West,” he wrote. “Imagine lecturing anyone on free speech when your government outlaws the letter Z.” Infowars also lamented the apparent cancellation of the letter “Z,” saying that banning the symbol was the latest example of Russophobia.
Germany’s interior minister was careful to say that the letter itself was “not forbidden,” that only its use in contexts to promote Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be subject to criminal charges. But some brands aren’t taking any chances—even if their concerns over continued usage of the letter “Z” is more an optics issue than a criminal liability one. Zurich Insurance Group, a global company headquartered in Switzerland, announced it was temporarily removing the letter “Z” from its branding. “We’re monitoring the situation closely and will take further actions if and when required,” the company told The Telegraph. “The Zurich brand has been around for 150 years. It is a trusted brand and we have proven our ability to change and respond to challenges over time.” British grocery delivery service Ocado announced it was redesigning the logo for its new speedy delivery service “Zoom,” only weeks after it launched, to distance itself from the conflict in Ukraine.
But other companies aren’t prepared to give up their “Z.” Zulip, which makes team chat software (like Slack), have discussed the matter over the last week and ultimately concluded their “Z” logo style doesn’t resemble that used by the Russian army to “promote their horrible war.” Zulip CEO Tim Abbott told VICE News: “Given that the Russian military is also using Os and Vs as their symbols, the global community should focus on condemning all promotion of the Russian invasion, regardless of what symbols, images, or language are being used to do so.” (Other companies that prominently feature a “Z” in their logos, including Zipcar, Zoomer Media, ZenHub, and German construction company Z-Service did not respond to VICE News’ requests for comment.) Luxury designer Louis Vuitton is facing a backlash after it unveiled a new line of jewelry featuring a stylized representation of the company’s LV initials that closely resembles a “Z.” One ad for the new line, posted to their Instagram page last week, has nearly 50,000 comments, half of which are heart emojis followed by the Russian flag, the other half, people telling the brand they should be “ashamed” of themselves for promoting war. It’s not entirely clear how “Z” became a symbol of Russia’s invasion. The letter that’s been plastered all over Russian military equipment doesn’t technically exist in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet (although there is a “z” equivalent that is written differently). Open-source researchers noted that Russian military hardware appearing in Ukraine was labeled with Zs and other letters, including A, O, V, and X. This led to conflicting theories among experts, with speculation the letters could indicate a particular region (and Z could stand for zapad, which means west) or they were just intended to signal to other Russian troops that they were on the same side. On March 3, Russia’s Ministry of Defense posted on Instagram that “Z” is meant to be an abbreviation of the phrase “for victory” (the Russian word “for,” in this context, is “za.“)