‘The Ghost of Kyiv’ is the first urban legend of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

I want to believe.
Jared Keller Avatar
A Ukrainian MiG-29 fighter jet. (Task & Purpose photo illustration)

As Russian missiles burned across the horizon and military aircraft prowled the skies above Kyiv, digital whispers of a lone airborne hero among the Ukrainian resistance began to emerge online. His name and his history are shrouded in mystery, but his exploits are already the stuff of modern military lore: that, with six air-to-air kills, the heroic pilot of a Ukrainian MiG-29 became the first air combat ace over European soil since World War II. 

They call him ‘the Ghost of Kyiv’ — and despite thousands of digital prayers to the contrary, he is in all likelihood a work of fiction. 

Based on digital activity, the first mention of the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ appears in a series of three tweets showing a lone Ukrainian fighter jet operating over the capital:

These original videos were retweeted thousands of times, many of which contain messages citing ‘reports’ of a Ukrainian fighter downing several Russian fighters in air-to-air combat. Like most modern urban legends, the story was further propagated online by tech bros and lawyers-turned-Twitter-muses with large social media followings. The story only grew from there, so much so, in fact, that Spanish newspaper Marca claimed that the Ghost of Kyiv had downed two SU-35 fighters, a SU-27 fighter, a MiG-29 fighter, and two SU-25 aircraft. Even the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense appeared to feed into the story, posting footage of a MiG-29 besting a Russian aircraft that was later revealed to be from a flight simulation program.

At the moment, however, official confirmation of an air ace — the term for shooting down more than five enemy aircraft — from the Ukrainian government is, for lack of a better term, extremely sketchy. While the Ukrainian MoD on Friday hyped the story of an “air avenger” above Kyiv, the Ukrainian military’s projected Russian losses in the first two days of conflict only amounted to a reported 10 aircraft, many of which were likely downed by Ukrainian air defenses with the exception of two Russian aircraft that the Ukrainian Air Force claimed were downed by a Ukrainian SU-27 in a dogfight. ​​Indeed, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Friday that Russia had not yet achieved air superiority, and that Ukrainians “still have air and missile defense capability, including aircraft …  in the air that continue to engage and deny air access to Russian aircraft.” This makes the possibility of a sole air ace out of Ukraine’s potentially 98-strong fleet of combat aircraft highly unlikely.

In addition, it’s worth noting that air-to-air kills are a relatively rare occurrence in modern warfare. The most recent known instance was the shootdown of an ​​Armenian SU-25 warplane by a Turkish F-16 fighter jet amid clashes between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces over breakaway territory Nagorno-Karabakh in September 2020. Three years prior, a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet shot down a Syrian SU-22 fighter-bomber above Syria in the U.S. military’s first air-to-air kill since 1999. Sure, there hasn’t been a major war on European soil since the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, but the idea of a lone fighter scoring six air-to-air kills in a single day (and in the first day of fighting, no less!) for the first time since World War II seems extremely far-fetched.

Here’s the problem with the Ghost of Kyiv. Every atom of my body tells me that this story is 99.9% bullshit, an ingenious piece of organic digital storytelling that morphed into a convenient grassroots propaganda narrative. But amid horrific images and videos of Russian aircraft allegedly firing missiles at civilian populations, I want to believe — and I know I’m not the only one. 

Every conflict gets the heroes it deserves, and that goes for legends as well — like that the 19th-century pirate Jean Lafitte was a battlefield hero for the United States during the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, or that Mr. Rogers was a deadly sniper in Vietnam (He, in fact, was not). As the conflict in Ukraine stretches on, it’s clear that this war will be no different. The Ghost of Kyiv may be a specter of our imagination, conjured into being from three disjointed tweets, but that doesn’t make what he represents to the people of Ukraine any less real: defiant resistance in the face of certain doom. Perhaps, in that sense, the Ghost of Kyiv is real enough — for now.

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