Mysterious Symbols Are Appearing On Russian Military Vehicles Near Ukraine

While their meanings are unknown, the codification strongly suggests a larger offensive could be about to begin.

byThomas Newdick|
Russia photo


Russian Army and other Russian military vehicles gathering around Ukraine’s borders, and potentially also now within the country after Russia began sending troops into two separatist areas of the eastern Donbas region, began appearing within with different symbols painted on them within the last couple of days. This may well point to an imminent expansion of what the U.S. government has now termed a new invasion of Ukraine. You can read more on what has already transpired recently in The War Zone’s previous reporting on this crisis. As to what exactly the symbols mean or why they exist in the first place, this remains altogether more mysterious.

Russian Army MT-LB armored tracked vehicles, with white triangles painted on the fronts and sides of the hulls. The triangles are also flanked by a pair of parallel white lines., YOUTUBE SCREENCAP

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 marshaling by troops or other security forces on the ground who may not be immediately familiar with their units and objectives. Up till now, tanks, artillery, rocket launchers, supply vehicles, and fuel trucks have all been noted with these markings, but not all of them carry them, at least so far.

The symbols, mainly applied using white paint, include the Latin letter ‘Z’ within a square or a triangle, as well as simpler triangles and circles.

Different applications of the letter ‘Z’ are seen below:

The following videos show self-propelled artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems wearing the ‘Z’ symbol:

White triangle markings are seen in the following video, apparently taken in the vicinity of Belgorod, around 25 miles from the Ukrainian border:

Video thumbnail

The white circle marking, one of many to have been spotted near Belgorod:

And more white circles, this time filled in, and applied on self-propelled artillery:

In at least one instance, however, a T-90 tank unit has been noted with a red triangle together with a numeral. One possibility here is that the red signifies the Guard status of the unit in question — an honorific title bestowed upon Russian military units with particularly notable combat records.

Already, there have been some other hypotheses about what these different markings might actually signify. According to one account on the Russian Telegram social media network, ‘Z’ is used on vehicles headed toward Kharkiv, a triangle for units going in the direction of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk, while the circle is used for those belonging to the mobile reserve. There is no confirmation of this, at present, and such markings are, by their nature, not intended to be obviously decipherable to outside observers.

Potentially confusing the matter further is imagery that shows more than one of these markings on the same vehicle, as seen on these pontoon bridge vehicles:

With Russia and Ukraine operating many of the same, or similar, military vehicles, adding some kind of prominent identification friend or foe (IFF) marking to reduce the risk of ‘friendly fire’ would also make sense, but would not explain the use of different markings, which suggest a kind of codification. Also, traditionally, IFF would be better standardized and easier to see at long distances or from the air.

There are also some other theories doing the rounds on social media, although these are similarly speculative.

There has been a suggestion that the ‘Z’ symbol refers to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, or even the Russian ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Both those explanations seem surprisingly literal and not something that local commanders would necessarily authorize. Furthermore, the letter ‘Z’ does not appear in the Cyrillic alphabet, adding another layer of mystery.

Other, seemingly more fanciful explanations point to ‘Z’ as the final letter of the Latin alphabet, suggesting an ‘end game’ or ‘final destination’ for the Russian forces involved.

It’s also important to note that not all of the vehicles bearing these markings belong to the Russian Army. Also noted have been trucks from Rosgvardia, Russia’s National Guard, the roles of which include securing borders, counter-terrorism, protecting public order, and guarding important state facilities. These vehicles have also been seen with the now-familiar ‘Z’ marking revealing, at the very least, that Rosgvardia is expected to be involved in any wider intervention in Ukraine.

Whatever the meaning of these symbols, and for now, at least, accounts we have seen are entirely speculative, their sudden appearance does seem to indicate the potential for some major new development in the current campaign. With so many vehicles already gathered in areas close to Ukraine’s borders, it’s hardly surprising that these hastily applied markings are being taken as evidence of a potential escalation in this latest Russian intervention in Ukraine.

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