For weeks, an unknown Ukrainian fighter pilot captivated the nation and some of the world with his extraordinary battle feats, becoming a symbol of heroic resistance to Russia’s invasion that came to be emblazoned everywhere from T-shirts to NFTs.
Now, the Ukrainian air force says the Ghost of Kyiv never existed. And although the myth is dead, war watchers said its spread raised questions over how information is processed in a war where journalists have struggled to access the front lines.
As with most legends, the Ghost of Kyiv’s origin is shrouded in mystery, but it was undoubtedly abetted by former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who tweeted an image of a masked fighter pilot who purportedly shot down six Russian jets within hours of Moscow’s invasion.
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When the Ukrainian Defense Ministry in March tweeted a video praising Maj. Stepan Tarabalka, who died during aerial combat and who was awarded a posthumous medal for courage, the internet connected the dots. As the myth of the ghost grew, so did his exploits, with the single pilot being credited with downing 40 Russian jets.
Last weekend, however, the Ukrainian Air Force Command wrote on its Facebook page that Tarabalka was not the ghost, nor had he dispatched 40 enemy aircraft. It said the Ghost of Kyiv was a “superhero legend whose character was created by Ukrainians.”
But it also offered a sense of why such myths tend to take hold during war. The Ghost of Kyiv wasn’t real, Ukraine’s air force said, but it was “rather a collective image” of the country’s pilots, who have crucially managed to prevent Russian control of the skies in spite of expert predictions.
William Alberque, director of strategy, technology and arms control for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based research institute, said the ghost myth was designed to boost morale within the country, and, for a time, it succeeded.
“It was a very smart move to have a rallying call behind which everyone could fall, and for me, it was purely for internal messaging for Ukrainians to rally behind the flag,” he said. “Plus it’s really hard to verify, right? You can say he shot down 100 aircraft, and in the propaganda stage of a war, you don’t need to prove it.”
The myth arose within hours of the conflict breaking out and when Ukrainian fears of a total capitulation were at their height. Neither the West nor officials in Kyiv knew how long they could withstand the onslaught.
“They had no idea they were even going to wake up the next day, so they had little time to worry about getting caught out on this one,” Alberque said.
But myths are persistent. The armed forces may have denied the ghost’s existence and body count, but it still raises doubts as to whether Ukraine has been exaggerating its gains in the aerial battlefield — an area where Russia should, on paper at least, have supremacy.
The army said it has shot down or destroyed 187 Russian plans as of Friday. But independent monitor Oryx only has evidence of 26 lost Russian aircraft.
Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, said the Ghost of Kyiv saga has had the negative consequence of drawing unwanted scrutiny of official war figures.
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“It’s made people much more skeptical about stories coming out of Ukraine regarding battlefield successes,” he said. “The kind of legends and stories that people wanted to believe and be inspirational turned out to be false.”
Although he stressed he supported Ukraine’s fight against Russian aggressions, Cancian said information sourced from its military had been treated with excess credulity since the start of the conflict.
“When we think about it, we know very little about Ukrainian casualties or losses,” he said.
With most journalists in Ukraine unable to access the war’s hot spots, news organizations rely heavily on information relayed back to them in Kyiv or Lviv.
“It’s not their fault, but they are hundreds of miles from the front line, and they are reporting figures that often come from secondary or tertiary sources,” Cancian said. “They might be right, but we don’t know, and that’s a problem.”
Although Russia and its supporters are already using the Ghost of Kyiv as an example of Ukrainian propaganda, the episode “hasn’t really resonated in the West yet to the extent that it undermines Ukrainian credibility.”
Alberque said there were other examples of unverified Ukrainian claims, such as the reported shooting down of two Russian troop carriers hours into the invasion.
“It could erode trust if it happens again and again, but I’m willing to give a country that’s under massive attack from a nuclear-armed army a pass now and then,” he said. “Today, Ukraine benefits by simply telling the truth and not embellishing anything.”