‘Ghost of Kyiv’, fake pilot but real propaganda origins

Today, Saturday, the Ukrainian Air Force admitted that the “Kyiv ghost” does not exist, after indicating otherwise in the past. But the legend of an unknown pilot who single-handedly shot down dozens of Russian planes illustrates the effectiveness and goals of Ukrainian propaganda.

“Ghost of Kyiv” no longer exists. On Saturday, April 30, the Ukrainian Air Force ended the legend of the air “ace”, which was to shoot down more than forty Russian combat aircraft since the beginning of the war.

“kyiv ghost” is a paranormal legend created by Ukrainians! It should be seen as a collective representation of the forty pilotsAnd Tactical Aviation Brigade. They are the ones who protect the sky of the capital and can suddenly appear where the enemy does not expect them.”

This admission puts an end to more than a month of fervor on social networks – often maintained by the Ukrainian authorities themselves – and speculation about the identity and existence of this heroic “ghost”, portrayed as the worst nightmare of Russian pilots. The army did not specify why it ended up lifting the veil on this propaganda campaign.

“Ghost” appeared since the first day of the Russian invasion

The day before the Ukrainian army accepted several media – Including the British Times – He claimed that he identified the famous ghost. For them, it was Major Stepan Tarabalka, the Ukrainian pilot who died on March 13 and was awarded the honorary title of “Ukrainian Hero” for his aerial exploits.

The desire to discover the identity of this “ghost” is understandable. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this pilot has been positioned as a “symbol of Ukrainian resistance to invaders,” recalls Yevgeny Golovchenko, a specialist in Russian disinformation and propaganda at the University of Copenhagen.

He appeared on February 24 in a series of tweets posted by a Bosnian Internet user, followed by more than 70,000 subscribers, describing himself as a “military enthusiast”. This observer marvels at the Ukrainian army’s MIG-29 air maneuvers.

As the retweets progressed, these first videos were enriched with stories of the military exploits of the “Kyiv Ghost” who allegedly shot down six Russian planes in less than 30 hours of combat. The creation of this myth “comes in part from the Ukrainian population. I remember a friend I spoke to the day after the war began and he told me that he saw “the Kyiv ghost” with his own eyes, ”recalls Yevgeny Golovchenko.

Ukrainian authorities and politicians seized the opportunity to legitimize the adventures of this ranger from the air. The government posted a video, February 27, from this “unknown pilot MIG-29” who has already shot down ten Russian planes. Later, it was established that the images used were taken from a video game.


Ex-President Petro Poroshenko has also entered the game She saluted on Twitter the brave “Ghost of Kyiv”. While using, to make his point, a photo from 2019 of a Ukrainian pilot testing a new “Made in France” flying helmet.

A “simplified” symbol of the beginning of the war in Ukraine

Despite the reservations of many in the media about the existence of this super pilot, his legend has grown.

Shortly before the final recognition of the Ukrainian Air Force, the list of the unknown pilot reached 49 Russian aircraft on social networks. More, in fact, than the total Russian air losses since the start of the war, according to Oxyx, an independent military analysis website that counted 26 aircraft, 39 helicopters, and 48 combat drones shot down by the Ukrainians on April 30.

What does it matter, in fact, if these exaggerations damage the credibility of the exploits of the “Ghost of Kyiv”: his story illustrates the “extreme simplification of the message of wartime propaganda”, explains Yevgeny Golovchenko.

Although the narrative of this legend may sound crude, it ticks all the boxes in a good propaganda guide that seeks to raise the morale of the troops. “The goal is to simplify a complex and frightening reality in order to make it acceptable to the public, which is more willing to believe it because the message carries hope,” sums up the expert from the University of Copenhagen.

In this case, the legend of the solo pilot who completely defeated the Russian Air Force, in the eyes of the Ukrainians, symbolizes the beginnings of the war: despite their overwhelming numerical superiority, the Russians failed to quickly gain control of the air and capture Kyiv. .

From Tolkien’s Orcs to “kyiv’s ghost”

And this legend, in this regard, reminds of the efforts of Russian propaganda. The main message from the Kremlin to justify the “special military operation” was to present it as an attack to “discredit” Ukraine. Here, too, the topic may seem crude. But the authorities are counting on the will of the Russians to believe in them, eager to put themselves in the camp of the “good guys against the bad”.

For more information on FRANCE 24: From Russia: How Russian Propaganda Builds the Image of “Nazi” Ukraine

Regardless of this aspect, Ukrainian propaganda and Russia’s propaganda during this conflict “are completely different in form and content,” notes Yevgeny Golovchenko. The Kremlin has taken a very vertical approach to this information war: the authorities made the message clear before it was picked up and amplified by pro-Russian groups. In Ukraine, the borders are even more blurry: it is difficult to know who is the origin of propaganda between the state and the population. When netizens post photos of abandoned Russian tanks on Twitter to illustrate the “bad state of Russian armament,” the idea for such a campaign does not necessarily come from the government.

In essence, too, “Russian propaganda rests on three pillars: it is not a war, it is a lobotomy aimed only at the ‘Nazi’ elements in Ukraine and everything is going well,” summarizes Yevgeny Golovchenko. On the Ukrainian side, everything is being done to present this conflict as “an all-out war for the survival of Ukraine,” as this researcher puts it.

It is no coincidence that “the Ukrainians called the Russian soldiers orcs, in reference to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien [Le Seigneur des anneaux, NDLR]”, emphasizes Yevgeny Golovchenko. It was already a habit among the Ukrainian army following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, but since the beginning of the war, this comparison has been adopted by everyone. “It is a way to dehumanize Russian soldiers, comparing them to monsters. Stupidity can be defeated by showing intelligence,” explains the specialist.

The legend of the “Kyiv Ghost” fits perfectly with this logic: isn’t it the story of a pilot who conquers hordes of enemies thanks to his wits and knowledge alone?

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