The Ghost of Kyiv: Myth and Misinformation in the Russia-Ukraine War

A few days into the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia, an official Ukrainian government Twitter account shared a video montage of a single plane shooting down several Russian fighter jets. The pilot was quickly given the nickname “The Ghost of Kyiv” and obtained the status of “flying ace”: someone who has shot down more than five planes in combat. The anonymous ace became a source of hope for Ukrainians and the world at large. But fact-checking has shown that the Ghost of Kyiv is no more substantial than his moniker. So, why? Why promote a wartime urban legend, and what would someone gain from doing so?

The montage wasn’t the only false record of the Ghost of Kyiv’s activities. Reports of destroyed planes followed the original Twitter post, but no evidence was produced that linked them to one pilot. An early video of the Ghost was later proven to be computer-generated, originating from a combat simulator. A photo of a fighter pilot, allegedly the Ghost, posted by former president Petro Poroshenko was sourced from a 2019 Twitter post made by the Ukrainian defense ministry. While social media companies are often held to a high standard when it comes to fact-checking (a very good thing, considering the sheer volume of information that such websites contain), Twitter only took down the original video. The montage and the Poroshenko post remained accessible.

Tech giants like Twitter are playing a major role in the war, both in and out of the conflict zone. While Russian media is strictly controlled by the government, outside sources are overflowing with firsthand accounts of the war. Transparency is undoubtedly preferable to complete control by an authoritarian regime. But the allowance of unverified information on social media can also be a serious problem: it makes existing statistics (death tolls, civilian casualties, etc.) and other vital information hard to confirm. Russian state media does the opposite– the war was termed a “special military operation” in the country– but it has a similar effect. No matter where someone is, they run the risk of encountering misinformation.

Misinformation is almost always spread to influence public opinion. Russian state media has insisted since the start of the war that the Ukrainian people are Nazi sympathizers: an accusation that is blatantly false, but certainly compels people to act. Not all false or questionable information comes from the oppressor, though. The Ukrainian ambassador to the UN, Sergiy Kyslytsya, shared text messages allegedly taken from the phone of a deceased Russian soldier. The texts were read (in Russian) by Kyslytsya: “Mama, I’m in Ukraine. There is a real war raging here. I’m afraid.” The story follows a common wartime narrative: it portrays the soldiers as young and doubtful about going to war with Ukraine, encouraged to fight under false pretenses. That narrative appeals specifically to Russian parents fearing for their enlisted children. Information presented in this manner (via a printed screenshot of text messages) isn’t easy to verify, so there’s no definitive answer on whether Kyslytsya was telling the truth.

More recently, the Ghost has returned to the spotlight. Late last week, several news reports claimed that the Ghost, identified as Major Stepan Tarabalka, was killed in an air battle with Russian forces. While the real Maj. Tarabalka did indeed die in combat, his final battle occurred on March 13. The Ukrainian air force stepped in to clear up the issue. Two days after the Times of London released its erroneous statement, the air force contradicted it in an online post, stating, “Ghost of Kyiv is a superhero legend whose character was created by Ukrainians.”

It’s easy to see why a country would promote misinformation that undermines its enemies, such as what the state-controlled Russian media has been doing. But why would a country promote misinformation to its own people? The easiest answer: Hope. Tales of a death-defying ace pilot defeating the enemy against insurmountable odds have served to inspire the people of Ukraine in their fight against Russia, the same way that firsthand accounts from ordinary Ukrainians have inspired countries across the world to provide political aid and relief efforts. 

One thing is certain: The Ghost of Kyiv doesn’t need to be real to be part of the fight.

Senior Erin Wilkinson is a staff writer for the 2021-2022 yearbook. When she isn’t drawing or writing, she enjoys listening to music and spending time with her friends.

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