The "Ghost of Kyiv" is more myth than man.
A report that the Ukrainian fighter pilot who flew into people's hearts as a modern Red Baron flying a MiG-29 jet and shooting Russian rivals out of the sky was identified and killed in battle can't be true — because he never existed, according to Ukrainian officials.
"Ghost of Kyiv is a superhero-legend whose character was created by Ukrainians!" the Ukrainian military said on Saturday. "This is rather a collective image of the pilots of the 40th Tactical Aviation Brigade defending the sky of the capital. Which suddenly appear where they are not expected."
The mysterious ace emerged early in Russia's war on Ukraine, with the story that the pilot shot down six Russian jets. Fast-forward more than two months into the conflict, and Major Stepan Tarabalka, a 29-year-old father of one, was identified as the Ghost of Kyiv, killed in battle after taking out as many as 40 Russian aircraft, the Times of London reported.
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Although Tarabalka was a "hero," he was "NOT 'Ghost of Kyiv' and he did NOT hit 40 planes," Ukraine's Air Force insisted. He was "heroically killed in an air battle with the dominant forces of the Russian occupiers," the military branch said on Facebook, adding that he died on March 13.
The Times of London, which still reports Ukrainian sources claiming he was real, now says it understood that Tarabalka inspired the legend of the Ghost of Kyiv, even if it wasn't him exactly.
“The Ghost of Kyiv is alive and embodies a collective image of the highly qualified pilots of the tactical aviation brigade successfully defending Kyiv and the surrounding region," said Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ignat.
Tarabalka was posthumously awarded the Order of the Golden Star, the highest military honor, and given the title Hero of Ukraine.
The Ghost of Kyiv story, as described by Ukrainian military historian Mikhail Zhirohov for BBC, was "propaganda for raising morale" in the face of Russia's superior military might when the invasion began.
Among those who fueled some of the early speculation about the existence of the Ghost of Kyiv was former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
"In the photo - the MiG-29 pilot. The same 'Ghost of Kiev,'" he shared on Twitter in late February, according to a translation. "It terrifies enemies and pride Ukrainians."
"He has 6 victories over Russian pilots!" Poroshenko added. "With such powerful defenders, Ukraine will definitely win!"
На фото – пілот МіГ-29. Той самий «Привид Києва».— Петро Порошенко (@poroshenko) February 25, 2022
Він викликає жах у ворогів та гордість в українців 🇺🇦
На його рахунку 6 перемог над російськими пілотами!
З такими потужними захисниками Україна точно переможе! pic.twitter.com/GJLpcJ31Si
In the United States, Rep. Adam Kinzinger celebrated the Ghost of Kyiv's rumored accomplishments and also apparently fell for a photoshopped tweet claiming to reveal the Ghost of Kyiv's identity.
To the #ghostofkyiv we raise a glass. Here is to even more! https://t.co/7LLRtKq7lo— Adam Kinzinger (@AdamKinzinger) February 25, 2022
Lesia Vasylenko, a member of the Parliament of Ukraine, shared a "few" points on the Ghost of Kyiv on Sunday, tweeting, "he is alive and well," "he can’t be killed - he is a ghost," "he IS a legend," and "he is all those brave ace pilots that appear out of nowhere protecting the skies."
A few point on the Ghost of Kyiv:— Lesia Vasylenko (@lesiavasylenko) May 1, 2022
⁃he is alive and well
⁃he can’t be killed - he is a ghost
⁃he IS a legend
⁃he is all those brave ace pilots that appear out of nowhere protecting the skies
The widespread fascination with the Ghost of Kyiv was coupled early in the war with the gripping tale of the defenders of Snake Island.
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According to early accounts, 13 Ukrainian border guards on Snake Island, also known as Zmiinyi Island, were reported to have perished after one told an imposing Russian warship to "go f*** yourself" when they were instructed to lay down their weapons and surrender. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the 13 guards believed to have died as heroes, saying they would be "awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine posthumously.”
However, after Russia claimed that a garrison at the outpost had voluntarily surrendered to its forces, the Ukrainian Navy said the defenders were "alive and well." Roman Hrybov has been identified as the border guard who cursed out the Russian warship. He apparently was released in a prisoner exchange and then awarded a medal.
The Russian Navy missile cruiser that led the famous attack on Snake Island in the Black Sea sank to the bottom of the Black Sea last month. Ukrainian forces hit the Russian flagship Moskva with two Neptune missiles, the Pentagon affirmed, and the vessel sank the next day.