Military News

The ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ was a battlefield myth but it’s still a good story

ghost of kyiv painting
Ghost of Kyiv fan art painting by Andriy Dankovych.

On February 24, 2022, Russian tanks, troops, vehicles, artillery and aircraft rolled across its border with Ukraine and made a mad dash for the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. The Russians advanced quickly and were able to capture some of the smaller towns and villages in the Kyiv Oblast. With air superiority and overwhelming numbers, things looked good for the Russians and bad for Ukraine. 

But they didn’t hold superiority in the air for very long. Soon, cracks began to appear in the armor of the invincible Russian bear. They were unsuccessful in dropping Russian Special Forces into the capital, capturing Ukraine’s president, or even capturing critical airfields. The key to the loss of air superiority, many came to believe, was a mysterious fighter pilot who came to be known as “The Ghost of Kyiv.” 

Flying his MiG-29 Fulcrum, the Ghost of Kyiv was said to have shot down at least six Russian aircraft over the Ukrainian capital during the Kyiv Offensive. Social media users began posting videos of fighters in dogfights across the country. For around 30 hours, the Ghost was the hero Ukraine needed. 

The Ukrainian Security Service, the law enforcement branch of the Ukrainian government was said to have confirmed the Ghost’s existence. The Ministry of Defense believed The Ghost of Kyiv was an unknown reservist who answered his country’s call to arms. If the stories were true, the pilot would have been the first fighter ace of the 21st century. No one could confirm if such a pilot existed. 

Days later, the number of “confirmed” kills from the Ghost had risen to 10. The mystery pilot was then a double ace. Fighter pilots began to become the face of defiance as they increased their kill counts against Russian aircraft. Though some news outlets reported that sources inside the Ukrainian government said the pilot was real, no one ever saw the mystery ace. 

As the war dragged on, the assault on Kyiv was repelled, as was the entire Russian Army. Through the Spring of 2022, Ukrainians began to return home and even take up arms as more and more foreign volunteers flooded in to help fight off the Russians. The Ukrainian Air Force finally admitted in April that the Ghost of Kyiv wasn’t real, but was still important for the early days of the war. 

plane similar to ghost of kyiv
Ukrainian Air Force MiG-29 in 2018. A similar plane was credited to the Ghost of Kyiv. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Charles Vaughn)

They called him a superhero legend of Ukraine, embodying the collective spirit of highly qualified pilots… who could raise morale at a time when people needed simple stories.” The story of the Ghost of Kyiv became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance across the country. Some might scoff at the use of propaganda by the Ukrainian government, but it worked. 

In the days and months that followed, Ukrainian forces pushed Russia back from Kyiv and other major cities, struck massive blows to the Russian Army, Navy, and Air Forces, and created a united front against the invaders. The war is not a stalemate that is requiring Russia to throw masses of men, material, weapons, and equipment into, all of which the Russians can’t afford to lose or replace. 

The Russians have been forced to conscript hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens for the war, requiring multiple mass drafts of the Russian people. Since the war began, 139,000 Russian troops and 289 military aircraft have been down with the same spirit “The Ghost of Kyiv” fostered in the earliest days of the fighting.