The ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ Fairytale Was Deliberate, Dangerous Disinformation

ghost of kyiv fake, CC BY 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Ukrainian Air Force has officially killed the “Ghost of Kyiv”… by admitting he never existed.

This fanciful bit of propaganda ran through a few iterations – first, with opaque, mysterious rumors.

Then, someone had the bright idea of creating a martyr of him – presented as Major Stepan Tarabalka, a 29-year-old pilot killed in “battle against overwhelming enemy forces.”

By then the legend had grown so that the mysterious pilot had downed 40 Russian aircraft in fierce dogfights over Ukrainian skies.

After admitting that it was all fake, Ukrainian authorities switched gears, celebrating the superhero myth as a representation of Ukrainian resilience and an attempt to boost the morale of the Ukrainian fighters.

It begs the question for Americans who have been propagandized up the wazoo over the last several (some would say many) years: should we be more concerned about our collective desire to believe what we hear from Ukraine?

The Allure of the Share Button

The fog of war is a term used by the military to describe the confusion and chaos of intense battle. Unfortunately, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has created a new form of foggy war, a digital fog of war. With so much alleged real-time sharing of photos and videos on Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok, the level of falsified content is incredible and alarming.

A recent case covered by CNN was a video that allegedly showed Ukrainian soldiers leaving their families for battle, which was exposed as actually being from 2018 and was of U.S. Marines returning home.

There were also fake videos on Facebook Gaming, described as footage of live attacks on Ukraine by Russia, some complete with red “Breaking News” banners. The only problem is, they were fake – taken from a popular video game called ArmA III. These videos were watched by more than untold numbers of people and shared more than 25,000 times before the fakery was realized.

On Twitter video from ArmA III surfaced again with the claim:

“Ukraine fires missiles to intercept Russian aircraft’s artillery fire.”

This tweet had 11,000 likes and almost 2,000 retweets.

The usage of that particular video game isn’t reserved to Ukraine either. Kotaku points out that Russian news used ArmA III footage for a story on Syria in 2018 and then, when called out on it, claimed it was ‘human error.’ 

Why do people want to believe anything they see so badly? Claire Wardle of Brown University describes this phenomenon as:

“People feel helpless, they feel like they want to do something and so they’re online scrolling and they’re sharing things that they think are true because they’re trying to be helpful.”

Of Course The Ghost Was Never Real

It’s been 80 years since a single pilot racked up more than a handful of air-to-air kills across an entire flying career. So to think that one Ukrainian pilot in a 30-year-old, twin-engine MiG-29 could down 40 Russian aircraft is folly. Still, on April 30th, the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff said Russia had lost 190 planes and 155 helicopters since the war started.

As the BBC points out, independent military analyst Oryx pegs the true scale far, far below Ukraine’s claims, at 26 planes, 39 helicopters, and 48 drones.

The exaggerations or outright falsehoods out of Ukraine aren’t limited to the Ghost or air combat.

Then, of course, there were the heroic 13 from Snake Island. After epically telling a Russian warship to go F themselves, they lost their lives. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hailed them as fallen heroes. And while most heroic and badass, the reality was they weren’t dead.

Could it have been a case of war fog, or did Ukraine know and just slow roll the truth to support a narrative?

What Is This Costing Us?

The United States is the largest monetary and equipment supplier to Ukraine, which is about par for the course on any global issue. Below is a snapshot of what we have provided as of the end of April:

  • $4 billion in security assistance
  • $3 billion approved for the U.S. military’s European Command Operations
  • 72 tactical vehicles, which tow 155mm howitzer artillery units
  • 16 Mi-17 helicopters
  • hundreds of armored multipurpose wheeled vehicles
  • 200 M113 armored personal carriers
  • unmanned coastal defense vessels
  • 1,400 anti-aircraft systems
  • more than 20,000 anti-armor systems
  • more than 700 Switchblade drones
  • 90 155mm artillery howitzers
  • 7,000 small arms
  • more than 50 million rounds of ammunition
  • 75,000 sets of body armor and helmets

To put the above into perspective, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection got $14.8 billion in the latest omnibus, which decreased by $428 million from last Fiscal Year.

Playing Fast and Loose with Foreign Policy

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, I was enraged just as much as the next American. As a veteran who served in Afghanistan, the desire to put the uniform back on and do something to fight off the aggressor was almost unbearable. The images of dead civilians, children, babies, and mass graves are hard to see but must be viewed.

We mustn’t shield ourselves from the disturbing facts and images of the war. Still, it is equally important that we don’t allow ourselves to be driven into action based on false pretenses.

This past week Speaker Nancy Pelosi took an all-Democratic Congressional Delegation to Ukraine to meet with President Zelenskyy. While I think Congressional Delegations are a good way for lawmakers to see firsthand the truth of issues that are hard to capture from across the globe, in no way was this visit meant to capture any truth.

If it were, it would’ve been a bipartisan delegation. While in Kiev, Pelosi said to President Zelenskyy:

“…our commitment is to be there for you until the fight is done.”

Congressman Jason Crow doubled down, stating the U.S. is: 

“We are not interested in stalemates, we are not interested in going back to the status quo. The United States of America is in this to win it. And we will stand with Ukraine until victory is won.”

But when is the fight done? What are we interested in, if not the status quo? What does winning look like? What does victory look like? Is it the fall of Putin?

Is it Ukraine getting all its territory back and the removal of all Russian forces and aggression at its borders? Does anybody believe that Putin would stop his aggressive behavior? Does anybody feel the removal of Putin would end the international threat that Russia poses?

It is not that most people or I believe we shouldn’t be doing something to help Ukraine fight against Russia. However, as someone who fought a forever war with unclear objectives, I think we should all pay closer attention to what Congress and this administration are providing and promising in this war.

I’d hate to see us going through another botched withdrawal in twenty years. Still, this time in Kiev, wondering how it all went wrong while asking ourselves whatever happened to the Ghost of Kyiv.