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Defense officials have not said publicly what the markings could mean. It is also worth noting that the letter “Z” does not exist in the Russian alphabet, so perhaps the symbol is a version of the Cyrillic letter “I.”

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It is a common military practice to use such markings to distinguish friend from foe. The U.S. military painted black and white “invasion stripes” on its aircraft during the 1944 invasion of Normandy to prevent Allied troops landing on the beaches from inadvertently shooting at their own planes, and American forces painted an upside-down “V” on their vehicles as a recognition symbol during Operation Desert Storm, retired Marine Col. Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Task & Purpose.


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Retired Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army Europe, said that while he does not know what the “Z” markings mean, the 101st Airborne Division used symbols from playing cards to identify its four regiments during World War II. For example, soldiers with the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment painted spades on their helmets.

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When Task & Purpose asked the Pentagon about the markings, an unnamed spokesperson replied bluntly by email: “I refer you to the Government of Russia.” The Russian embassy in Washington, D.C., did not provide a comment for this story.

Update: This story was updated following Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine.

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