- The Ukrainian media began reporting only a day after Russia's invasion began that an unknown pilot of a MIG-29 fighter jet had shot down six enemy jets in 30 hours
- The accusations were disproved the next day by Ukraine's armed forces' air force leadership
He shot down several Russian planes, escaped enemy attacks, and became a symbol of Ukraine’s surprisingly successful air defences, receiving the nickname “The Ghost of Kyiv” throughout the conflict.
He’s also a myth, it turns out.
“The Kyiv Ghost is a superhero legend created by Ukrainians!” On Saturday, Ukraine’s air force command posted on Facebook, refuting a months-old falsehood — fuelled by Ukrainian authorities — that had energised the fight to Russia’s incursion.
After some news agencies, notably the Times of London, recognised the Ghost of Kyiv as Maj. Stepan Tarabalka, a real-life 29-year-old who killed in an air battle in March, Ukraine issued a statement. The claim was widely shared on social media and in tabloid magazines in Ukraine and the West, appearing to corroborate that the courageous fighter’s narrative was true.
Instead, it has proven to be one of the most effective pieces of propaganda in an information war that Ukraine has waged as ferociously as it has on the battlefield at times.
The Ukrainian media began reporting only a day after Russia’s invasion began that an unknown pilot of a MIG-29 fighter jet had shot down six enemy jets in 30 hours. With the hashtag #ghostofkyiv, memes and illustrations began to circulate online, amassing hundreds of millions of views.
Even Ukraine’s previous president, Petro Poroshenko, tweeted a photo of the Ghost of Kyiv, a pilot who he claimed had “six victories over Russian pilots!”
“With such formidable defenders, Ukraine will undoubtedly triumph!” Poroshenko penned a letter. (The photo, it turned out, was taken from a Ukrainian Defense Ministry tweet from 2019.)
The Ukrainian government joined in as well. It shared the story and the photo on Twitter on Feb. 27, calling the unknown pilot “a nightmare for invading Russian aircrafts.” It featured a footage from a military flight simulator in a film congratulating the pilot.
When the Ukrainian Defense Ministry stated on Facebook that scores of discharged military pilots were returning to the air force around the same time, it alluded to the mystery surrounding the unidentified pilot, saying, “Who knows, maybe one of them is the air avenger on the MIG-29.”
The stories multiplied and intertwined. Following claims that the Ghost of Kyiv had been shot down in early March, Ihor Mosiychuk, a former Ukrainian politician, claimed that the pilot had survived, returned to his base, boarded another plane, and shot down another enemy plane.
He remarked on Facebook, “The ghost is alive!” According to the Kyiv Post, he shot down as many as 49 planes.
In certain areas, scepticism grew. The legend, on the other hand, only flourished. Artists created non-fungible tokens (NFTs) with the image of the pilot. Flyers and pictures depicting the “Ghost of Kyiv” in blue and gold circulated online.
Tarabalka, an airman who perished in battle on March 13 and was posthumously awarded the military title “Hero of Ukraine,” was identified as the pilot by various newspapers on Friday. According to Ukrainian sources published by the Times of London, the pilot’s helmet and goggles are set to be auctioned in London.
The accusations were disproved the next day by Ukraine’s armed forces’ air force leadership. “Stepan Tarabalka, Ukraine’s Hero, is NOT the ‘Ghost of Kyiv,’ and he did NOT fire down 40 planes,” the group said on Facebook. But it was enough to keep the legend alive.
The air force remarked on Twitter, “The #GhostOfKyiv is alive.” “It reflects the collective spirit of the Tactical Aviation Brigade’s highly qualified pilots, who are successfully defending #Kyiv and the region.”
That was all that mattered to many Ukrainians.