‘Stop Spreading Fake News: The Ghost Of Kyiv Is A Legend’, Ukrainian Military Says

Ghost of Kyiv
One of the images that circulated online supposedly depicting the "Ghost of Kyiv". (Ukrainian Air Force)

Some claims about the “Ghost of Kyiv” that went viral lately and other recent “urban legends” were just officially debunked.

“Hero of Ukraine Stepan Tarabalka is NOT “Ghost of Kyiv” and he did NOT hit 40 planes.” This is one of the most interesting statements included in an official statement shared on social networks by the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The post, was published in the afternoon European time on Apr. 30, 2022, and appears to be a response to the reports that started to circulate on British media outlets on Apr. 29.

Citing Ukrainian sources, The Times was the first to report that a Ukrainian Air Force pilot, Maj. Stepan Tarabalka, 29, a father of one, shot down while flying a MiG-29 on Mar. 13, 2022, was the legendary “Ghost of Kyiv”, a fighter pilot who shot down “more than 40 Russian aircraft”.

We first reported about the legend of the “Ghost” on Feb. 25, shortly after the Russian troops had started their invasion of Ukraine and the news a mystery pilot who singlehandedly shot down “six Russian aircraft” in a matter of few hours, had gone viral.

According to social media posts, one day into the war, the “Ghost of Kyiv” had become the first air combat ace over European soil since World War II, achieving the ace-in-a-day (shooting down more than five enemy aircraft) status. As we explained back then, the legend started with a series of three tweets showing a lone Ukrainian fighter jet operating over the capital, which were retweeted thousands of times. The Spanish newspaper Marca was among the first to claim that the Ghost of Kyiv had downed the six aircraft. Among his alleged kills, the Ghost initially claimed no less than two Russian Sukhoi Su-35s, a Russian Su-27 Flanker, a Russian MiG-29 and two Russian Su-25 ground attack aircraft.

Even the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense posted about the Ghost, retweeting footage of a MiG-29 fighting a Russian aircraft in what was later revealed to be a video recorded in the flight simulator DCS World. Former Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, posted on Twitter a photo of a fighter pilot, claiming it to be the real Ghost of Kyiv. Obviously, there is no way to confirm his real identity and his air-to-air kills, but for many the one from the former president appeared to turn a wild urban legend into reality.

However, since the very beginning, the story didn’t add up: as we clearly explained in our first post on the “Ghost”:

There’s only one catch: there probably is no “Ghost of Kyiv” and this internet legend is probably not true.

The legend of the “Ghost of Kyiv” is almost certainly an example of bizarre distortions and manipulations of fact or near-fact that are amplified during the chaos of war, especially a new war during the opening hours. These legends sometimes have at least some basis in fact, but as they travel through language barriers and across borders at the speed of light via social media, they become embellished, retransmitted and retweeted as “news”. There may have been Ukrainian air-to-air victories in the opening day of the war. There may have even been six total, or some other number. But the likelihood that six of these alleged aerial victories belongs to a singular, gallant “ace-in-a-day” is remote.

Despite the lack of evidence, many people claimed that the Ghost existed and kept fighting Russian jets, while many started to believe the “Ghost” was probably just a legend, that had become the worldwide emblem of the Ukrainian resistance, a moral-booster as well as the main character of many interesting artworks.

While stories about the “Ghost of Kyiv” have emerged every now and then after the first week or so of the war, the prevailing theory was that the mysterious pilot was just a legend that could give Ukrainian people hope, pride and desire to fight, acting as an example of bravery and love for the motherland to follow. Until the existence of the legendary pilot was allegedly supported by some Ukrainian sources cited by The Times and by various British tabloids immediately thereafter.

In the end, even the official Ukrainian accounts have had to post an official statement to respond to such reports that could probably damage the reputation and credibility of Kyiv’s military along with its past and future claims.

The post by the Ukrainian military roughly translate as follows:

Once again, we ask the Ukrainian community NOT to ignore the basic rules of information hygiene, not to issue the desired one as valid, check the sources of information before spreading it.
❗️ Hero of Ukraine Stepan Tarabalka is NOT “Ghost of Kiev” and he did NOT hit 40 planes.
On March 13, 2022, Major Stepan Tarabalka was heroically killed in an air battle with the dominant forces of the Russian occupiers. Here’s the information about him on the official website of the KPSU: https://www.facebook.com/kpszsu/posts/339462291555059
Ghost of Kiev is a superhero-legend whose character was created by Ukrainians! 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!
❗️ Military pilots are not yet studying abroad on F-16, as much as we all want it.
No official statement on this matter has been published in the media!
❗️ Well, and lastly, for especially creative – American bombers do not fly over Ukraine either!
Keep calm and use official sources of information.
🇺🇦 Glory to Ukraine!
🖊 Public Relations Service Command Air Force Armed Forces of Ukraine

In other words, Maj. Stepan Tarabalka was a hero pilot who was killed in action on Mar. 13, 2022, but he did not shot down 40 Russian aircraft.

The post also addressed some other recent claims, as the one that Ukrainian pilots would be training on F-16s in Germany or that American bombers would be flying over Ukraine.

Therefore, as explained at the beginning of the war, the “Ghost of Kyiv” was a still is a meme, a collective image of all Ukrainian fighter pilots who bravely fight against Russian Aerospace Forces aircraft over Ukraine: a symbol rather than an actual pilot, no matter what some media outlets speculate.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.