Ukraine’s fighter pilots are far outnumbered by Russians, and they’ve become legendary — thanks in part to the story of an alleged aviation ace dubbed the “Ghost of Kiev.”
Information began to circulate that this heroic figure had shot down about 40 enemy aircraft. That would be an impressive feat given that the arena in which the Russians rule the skies.
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But now the Ukrainian Air Force Command announced on Facebook that the “Ghost of Kiev is a legendary superhero that was created by the Ukrainians!”. He added by asking “the Ukrainian community not to neglect the basic rules of ‘information hygiene'” and “check sources of information before spreading information”.
Reports and reports earlier pointed out that the aviation ace would be 29-year-old Major Stepan Tarabalka. Ukrainian authorities confirmed that he died in action on March 13 and was posthumously honored with the Hero of Ukraine medal.
The Air Force now, however, points out that “Tarabalka is not the ‘Ghost of Kiev,’ and he has not shot down 40 aircraft.”
The country went on to officially describe the “Ghost of Kiev” as a “collective representation of pilots from the Air Force’s 40th Tactical Air Brigade, which defended the skies of the Ukrainian capital”, rather than just a legendary hero.
For weeks, Ukrainians did not know the real name of the “Ghost of Kiev”, but that did not stop the story from going viral on social networks around the world and reaching some journalistic outlets.
The character was used as a marketing piece by the Ukrainian aircraft manufacturer, for example, while Ukrainian Iryna Kostyrenko created a military insignia inspired by the legend.
In addition, the Defense Minister of Ukraine celebrated Tarabalka’s heroism on Twitter.
Experts in military actions told the BBC they doubted that just one pilot could have shot down this massive amount of aircraft (40).
For Mikhail Zhihoov, an expert on Ukrainian military history, the “Ghost of Kiev” story is “propaganda to boost morale”. In an interview with the BBC from Chernihiv, he claimed that at that point in the war the Russians dominated Ukraine’s airspace, so a Ukrainian pilot would be able “only to shoot down two or three adversaries”.
“Having this kind of propaganda is essential because our Armed Forces are smaller, and many think they can’t match Russia’s. We need it in times of war,” defended Zhihov.
The fact is that Ukrainian pilots have not yet allowed full control of the airspace by the Russians, flying the inferior and older MiG-29s and inspiring the modern legend of the aviation ace.
With all its military might, Russia had more than two months to destroy Ukraine’s air defense. But it has not yet been successful in this offensive.
Ukrainian authorities inflamed the legend of the “Ghost of Kiev” just days after the start of the war.
The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) displayed a fighter pilot on the messaging app Telegram with a caption that claimed the “Ghost of Kiev” was an “angel” for having shot down 10 Russian aircraft. The agency did not name the “angel”, and reports later pointed out that the photo was old.
On February 27, a message from the Ukrainian Security Service indicated that the ‘Ghost of Kiev’ had shot down 10 Russian aircraft — Photo: SBU
An expert on Ukrainian militarism told the BBC, on condition of anonymity, that the “Ghost of Kiev” story had “helped to lift morale at a time when people needed simple stories”.
Justin Crump of security consultancy Sybilline says the “Ghost of Kiev” legend is important because in our social media age “people need myths, heroes and legends, to provide cohesion and meaning.”
Shipwreck of the Pride of the Russian Fleet in the Black Sea
Ukrainian morale was also boosted by the story of the Russian missile cruiser Moskva, which still has several gaps.
Ukraine allegedly sank the pride of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea with two nationally manufactured Neptune missiles after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014.
Russia admitted that there was a fire on board and that the ship sank, but made no mention of a missile attack. At 12,490 tons, she is the largest Russian warship sunk in combat since World War II (1939-45).
Jenny Hill, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent, said the sinking of the Moskva was considered by many to be a “significant and humiliating” loss for Russian President Vladimir Putin and a “blow” to Russian national pride.
After the sinking, Mykola Bielieskov of the National Institute for Strategic Studies of Ukraine, which advises the Ukrainian government on military strategy, said that “Russian ships will now be forced to move away from the Ukrainian coast, where they can no longer feel safe”.
The Moskva did not actually fire missiles at Ukrainian land targets, but military experts told the BBC the vessel provided crucial support to other vessels that did.
Legendary pilots in history
Heroic fighter pilots also entered the national mythology of other countries. The UK celebrates the brave Royal Air Force pilots who outmaneuvered the mighty Nazi Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain in 1940.
And Russia itself glorifies the sacrifices of its WWII pilots who fought Nazi Germany’s rivals. Some deliberately collided with enemy planes after running out of bullets.
Legends such as the Phantom of Kiev are not surprising when there are such contrasting figures given for Russian and Ukrainian losses: there is plenty of room for reality make-up.
Portable missile launchers are essential in the airspace defense strategy — Photo: Getty Images
On April 30, for example, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said that in the war so far Russia had lost 190 planes and 155 helicopters. But independent military analysts at Oryx put Russian losses at 26 planes and 39 helicopters, as well as 48 drones.
Both Russia and Ukraine are very secretive about their own losses. Counting is difficult because aircraft often crash into enemy-controlled territory, and some manage to land back in Russia.
Experts agree that, in most cases, Russian aircraft were shot down with surface-to-air missiles, especially portable air defense systems (Manpads).