The “Ghost of Kyiv” has yet again made rounds on the internet following its “accomplishments” in the skies. At SOFREP, we knew the Ghost story was wartime myth-making as soon as we saw it. Propaganda and disinformation flow out onto the internet every day, and readers need to apply their own filters to reasonably separate fact from fiction.

The claims made about the “Ghost” were implausible from the start, a single Mig-29 prowling the skies over Kyiv slaying Russian air force jets at will.  Any civilian looking up and seeing a jet in the sky whether Russian or Ukrainian believed they had seen the Ghost in action.  It just wasn’t believable.  The Mig-29 is well past being a state-of-the-art fighter plane, the Russian airforce has better jets, with better avionics, sensors and weapons like the SU-35 and SU-34. Ukraine knows this and has used its remaining Mig-29s very carefully to avoid encounters with better Russian jets in the skies over the battlefield.  Not to mention that going out as a lone wolf is a sure way to get yourself killed pretty quick.  Fighter planes fly combat missions in pairs or entire squadrons.  This isn’t WWI with pilots taking off alone to to go fight an enemy in single combat.

Ukraine’s government was pretty quiet about this at first, which also suggested it was a myth.  In the early days of the war, a fighter pilot shooting down multiple planes would not have been kept a secret, they would have given Ukraine’s people a hero it badly needed in the opening weeks of the invasion.  Ukrainian Armed Forces now acknowledge that the unsung hero of the Ukrainian skies does not exist. We’ll get to that later. But how did this whole myth even start?

Around February 24th or 25th, the first news of the Ghost of Kyiv had spread like wildfire online, with many tabloids, blogs, and social media users claiming that the unnamed pilot had shot down 6 Russian planes in a Ukrainian MiG-29 over Kyiv during the initial offensive into Ukraine. The planes that the Ghost supposedly shot down were 2 Su-35s, 2 Su-25s, a Su-27, and a MiG-29. If it were true, then the Ukrainians would be the first nation to record a fighter ace in the 21st century.

Even the Security Service of Ukraine published this news, claiming that the first ace of the 21st century was a Ukrainian pilot who shot down 10 Russian fighter jets. This was met with national pride in Ukraine, where some had hailed the pilot as “the air avenger” drawing from the Marvel film, “The Avengers” (We suppose something like Captain America).

The Ukraine Security Service (SBU) showing a photograph of the so-called "Ghost of Kyiv" (BBC). Source:
The Ukraine Security Service (SBU) showing a photograph of the so-called “Ghost of Kyiv” (BBC)

The claims were so widespread that even the former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko bought into the idea and tweeted a photograph of the pilot, which was later confirmed to be a photograph from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense when they were testing a new helmet in 2019.

Perhaps the most obvious sign that the Ghost of Kyiv was not real was those videos of fighter jets from a video game that also circulated on social media, claiming that those fighter jets were the Ghost of Kyiv.

The New Ghost of Kyiv Narrative

Last week, the photos of 29-year-old Major Stepan Tarabalka circulated on social media, with many media outlets again buying into the idea that this pilot was, in fact, the Ghost of Kyiv. These posts also claimed that Tarabalka had downed 40 Russian fighter jets during his time in the air. While reports of him dying are real, as the Ukrainian Defense Ministry honored him through a video, it is untrue that the pilot had downed 40 Russian aircraft.