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 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.
🕯13 березня 2022 року під час повітряного бою з переважаючими силами 🇷🇺 загарбників «пішов у небо» майор Степан Тарабалка.
⁰🎖За захист повітряного простору, доблесть і відвагу майору Степану Тарабалці присвоєно звання «Герой України» (посмертно). pic.twitter.com/otjqT32ZP4
— Defence of Ukraine (@DefenceU) March 25, 2022
For all our readers out there, we know how unrealistic downing 40 aircraft is, but we have to understand that many individuals who are not quite familiar with how air combat works in real life might be deceived by this. Loads of movies and games skew the perception of fighter jets and combat, which may lead to gullible and hopeful either be deceived or be willing to deceive themselves.
That being said, the Ukrainian Armed Forces had cleared the air about the rumors of the Ghost of Kyiv and posted on their Facebook account that the Ghost of Kyiv is not real.
“Once again, we ask the Ukrainian community NOT to neglect the basic rules of information hygiene, not to issue the desired one valid, to check the sources of information, before spreading it,” the Ukrainian Armed Forces said.
“Hero of Ukraine Stepan Tarabalka is NOT “Ghost of Kyiv,” and he did NOT hit 40 planes,” they clarified, saying that Tarabalka was “heroically” killed in an air battle.
Instead, the Ukrainian Armed Forces claimed that the “Ghost of Kyiv” was a “superhero-legend whose character was created by Ukrainians!” confirming that it was indeed a myth created by the country. However, they did not say it was them who created or perpetuated the myth to some extent, which they certainly did.
“This is a faster-collected image of pilots of the 40th Air Force tactical aviation brigade, who protect the sky of the capital. What suddenly appear where they are not expected!” they stated.
Why the Ghost of Kyiv Exists
The Ghost of Kyiv was probably created for propaganda purposes and for a morale boost. The first news of the Ghost of Kyiv came about during the first few days of the war, along with the story of the Ukrainians who were stationed on Snake Island. Now we know that the Ghost of Kyiv story is a myth, while the Snake Island story was partially true as the Ukrainians were not killed after all.
In the early days of WWII, it was claimed that the US awarded the Medal of Honor to an army air corps bomber pilot named Colin Kelly for sinking a Japanese battleship off Formosa. He was killed in the attack and America had one of its first heroes to look up to. Except it didn’t happen that way at all. Kelly was carrying three 600lb bombs on a mission to hit the airfield at Formosa and saw a heavy cruiser off the island of Luzon in the Philippines bombarding the shore. He decided that was the more important target to hit. He dropped his three bombs from 20,000 ft and claimed two hits on the Cruiser(Japanese records do not confirm these hits on their cruiser). His bomber was then attacked by Japanese fighters as he returned to Clark Field and crashed about 5 miles from the runway. He was put in for a Medal of Honor but received the Distinguished Flying Cross instead. For most of the war, people believed Kelly had sunk a Japanese battleship and was awarded the MOH.
In war, propaganda is very much expected from combatants on both sides. Some to garner support from the international community, while some to boost the overall morale of their militaries and citizenry. Perhaps, if the Ukrainians did create the “Ghost of Kyiv” myth out of thin air, it was to energize the Armed Forces somehow and say that “If this one pilot could take on 40 enemies, then we can do it, too!” From a moralistic standpoint, yes, it does constitute somewhat of a lie, but Ukrainians have defended their territory with such tenacity and bravery so far that the truth is much better than the fiction at this point. Ukraine has some real heroes now they can talk about without the myth-making of a lone fighter pilot in the sky winning the war by himself.
Perhaps, it is the Ukrainians’ way of coping with the loss of relatives and friends to somehow pick up a gun to fight. If you had no choice and your country was being invaded, you’d probably need all the courage to fight off what was then billed as one of the strongest armies in the world.
In fact, in an interview with the BBC, Ukrainian military historian Mikhail Zhirohov revealed that the Ghost of Kyiv story was to boost morale.
“It’s essential to have this propaganda because our armed forces are smaller, and many think we can’t be equal to them [the Russians]. We need this in wartime,” Zhirohov said.
More than anything, Zhirohov’s use of the word “essential” probably explains the persistence of the myth more than anything. The people of Ukraine needed the Ghost in the first weeks of the war when Russia was expected to overrun the country in days. Now, nearly 70 days into a fight going very badly for Russia and Ukrainian forces pushing them back in many sectors, the myth can be put to rest as the Ukrainian people are now the very real heroes they were looking for all along.