Emergent videos of fighter jets patrolling the skies over Kyiv during the initial phase of the Russian invasion offered hope to a Ukrainian populace under siege and fed the narrative that became the “Ghost of Kyiv”. The subsequent claims that a single pilot was able to down six Russian jets in aerial combat on the first day of the war (and 40 over the course of a couple of weeks), though highly unlikely, acted as a symbol of domestic mobilization and heroism. This wartime propaganda was amplified by legitimate Ukrainian accounts like former President Poroshenko and the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, as well as prominent Western media outlets such as The Times of London, despite their knowledge that this was untrue (or at the very least unconfirmed).
The “Ghost of Kyiv” undoubtedly raised the spirits of those in opposition to the Russian invasion, and remains an excellent example of the risks of confirmation bias and how unsubstantiated claims, fueled by social media, have the capability to directly influence a desperate population during uncertain and chaotic times. Ukrainians (and the West) in opposition to an imposing Russian assault, yearned for a tangible hero to place their hope and trust in. Abstaining from moral judgments on the necessity for such propaganda, we must recognize that such operations exist with the intent of manipulating our emotions towards action. All claims, especially during periods of chaos and conflict, must be independently confirmed and the source of the claim must be constantly considered.
Origins of the Myth
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine commenced on February 24, 2022, one legendary story emerged - a lone Ukrainian MiG-29 Fulcrum Ace patrolling the skies above Kyiv. Bolstered by a series of videos posted to Twitter of a single jet flying above the Ukrainian Capital, the moniker “Ghost of Kyiv” began to trend on social media.
Various reports claimed that a Ukrainian pilot had shot down six Russian planes on the first day of the offensive. In a later Facebook post on February 27, 2022, the Security Service of Ukraine officially increased that total kill count to 10 Russian jets.
As soon as February 25, 2022, a new video began to circulate on social media supposedly depicting the "Ghost of Kyiv” shooting down a Russian Su-35 in air-to-air combat. This video was even shared by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, which wrote:
What does this Ukrainian ace produce
MiG-29 of the Air Force of the Armed Forces destroys the "unparalleled" Su-35 of the Russian occupiers”
The video in question was proven to be footage from the popular video game Digital Combat Simulator World and despite this revelation, Ukrainian officials continued to feed into the mythology of the “Ghost of Kyiv”.
In the coming days more and more accounts, of varying legitimacy, began to share pictures of the supposed “Ghost of Kyiv”. Some claimed that “Vladimir Abdonov” was the heroic pilot who downed the multitudes of Russian aircraft.
These photographs that were widely shared have since been proven to be photoshopped and illegitimate. The individual shown in these photographs is actually the face of a lawyer from Buenos Aires superimposed over other older military pictures.
The photo shown below is actually that of a Canadian F-18 pilot with a Ukrainian flag and patch crudely photoshopped in. The gray maple leaf shown on the jet behind the pilot is the same one used by the Royal Canadian Air Force.
A reverse image search also confirms that the photo is fake, with the earliest image dating back to 2013 - showing a different pilot, a different patch on his arm, and without the Ukrainian flag in the background.
The fourth photo shared on this tweet shows what appears to be a younger version of the man.
Upon further examination, however, this claim falls apart. The original photo is that of fallen Ukrainian Marine Vitaliy Skakun, who was posthumously awarded the title Hero of Ukraine by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. This photograph of Skakun was shared by the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine on Facebook on February 25, 2022.1
More reputable sources also began to push the narrative of the “Ghost of Kyiv” at this time, including the former Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, who tweeted:
“In the photo - the MiG-29 pilot. The same "Ghost of Kyiv".
It terrifies enemies and pride Ukrainians 🇺🇦
He has 6 victories over Russian pilots!
With such powerful defenders, Ukraine will definitely win!”
Interestingly, the photo that was shared of the purported hero was taken in 2019 and was shared by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry when Ukrainian pilots were testing a new helmet.
“In the Kyiv region, Ukrainian pilots are testing a French helmet in a tactical aviation brigade.”
On April 30, 2022, media outlets began to report that the “Ghost of Kyiv” had been killed in combat and his true identity was that of 29-year-old Major Stepan Tarabalka.2 According to reports, Tarabalka was killed in battle on March 13, 2022 while heroically defending Ukraine against “overwhelming” enemy forces.
The Kyiv Post (among other outlets like The Times in London) claimed that Tarabalka had 40 confirmed air-to-air kills over the skies of Ukraine despite not producing any concrete proof.3
Later that same day, the Ukrainian Air Force officially announced on Twitter that the “Ghost of Kyiv” was indeed not a single person, but was “the collective spirit of the highly qualified pilots of the Tactical Aviation Brigade”.
The mythology of the lone Ace over the skies of Ukraine was officially laid to rest, with the narrative instead shifting to the collective efforts of the entire aerial defense forces.
Feasibility of Claims
Even if we were to take the initial claims at face value, the idea that a single pilot (operating a less advanced fighter jet than their Russian counterparts), could down six enemy aircraft in a single day is at the very least dubious.
Air-to-air kills are a rare occurrence, with only a handful occurring in recent history, and an even smaller number who can be labeled Aces (5 or more confirmed kills) post-World War II.
We can reference open-source resources that track confirmed Russian and Ukrainian combat vehicle losses since the start of the war to help quantify the plausibility of the 40 (or even 6) claimed kills.4
Only 25 Russian combat aircraft have been confirmed to be lost in battle. Even if this number was higher, taking into account the possibility of unconfirmed kills, the likelihood that a single pilot operating around Kyiv was responsible for nearly 100% of the losses is extremely improbable.
Instead, what has been evident via open-source reporting has been Ukraine’s great success with surface-to-air weaponry. It is more likely than not, that the majority of confirmed air kills have come from surface fired weapons and not from aerial dogfights as previously claimed.