For the week since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, observers from the amateur to expert have noticed the white sprayed-painted letters adorning tanks and other vehicles taking part in the “special military operation.” While their utility is clear, for days it was anyone’s guess as to what the letters actually stood for.
Early on, it was obvious why the Russians were painting symbols on their tanks: to tell them apart from Ukrainian vehicles, which are similar to and often the same weapons as those used by the Russian army. This approach was famously seen in 1968, when Soviet tanks sent to “normalize” Czechoslovakia — a wayward ally of Moscow — were painted with white cross patterns to prevent friendly fire.
Since the invasion began, locals and observers have noticed several types of white symbols used by the Russians. Z is common in the southern and eastern fronts, while V is seen in the northern front. Some vehicles are painted with a white “O” shape and others have the Z enclosed with a rectangle or triangle.
The choice of V and Z is also made intriguing by the fact that they do not exist in the Cyrillic alphabet used to write the Russian and Ukrainian languages.
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Some speculated that V, Z, and O were chosen for the initials of the Ukrainian president, whose full name is Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelensky. A number of netizens joked that the Russian invaders were like an army of zombies, hence the Z.
On March 2, the Russian Ministry of Defense revealed a more straightforward answer, at least for Z and V, as reported by pro-Ukraine site Unian.
Z stands for the Russian words “За победу” (Za Pobedu), meaning “for victory.” “З” is the Cyrillic equivalent of the Latin “z.”
V — written as “в” in Cyrillic — stands refers to the “v” in the phrases “Сила в правде” (Sila v pravde) and “Задача будет выполнена” (Zadacha budet vypolnena) — “in truth lies power” and “the mission will be completed,” according to the defense ministry.
It appears there is still no official explanation for the meaning of “O.”