Ace Fighter Pilot or Great Propaganda — Is Ukraine’s ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ Real?

February 26, 2022Mac Caltrider
Ghost of Kyiv

A Slovak Air Force MiG-29, similar to the one the “Ghost of Kyiv” is rumored to be flying. Wikimedia Commons photo.

As Ukrainian forces defended their nation against a Russian invasion launched the morning of Thursday, Feb. 24, a meme purporting to show a Ukrainian MiG-29 in the skies above Kyiv spread across the internet, becoming a potent rallying cry for anyone invested in Ukraine’s fight to expel the Russian invaders.

Text above the blurry image of a silhouetted jet in the cloudy sky stated, “Apparently there’s a Ukrainian Fulcrum pilot who’s already chalked off six air to air kills today against Russian forces. 2x SU-35, 1x SU-27, 1x MiG 29, 2x SU-25. He is being called the ‘Ghost of Kyiv.’”

If the claims made are actually true, the so-called Ghost of Kyiv would be the first fighter ace of the 21st century. Coffee or Die Magazine spoke with a US Marine F/A-18 pilot and an Army psychological operations specialist to assess the credibility of the claims made in the meme.

Ghost of Kyiv
The “Ghost of Kyiv” meme began spreading all over social media Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Screenshot via Twitter.

Preston Wallace, a former Marine F/A-18 pilot who flew dozens of combat missions in Iraq and Syria, said the claims made in the meme were “highly unlikely.”

“One of the things that struck me the most is the rumor that he shot down two Su-35s, which are basically the preeminent Russian fighter,” Wallace said. “I’ve seen one up close, and they’re very powerful and very capable. The [MiG-29] Fulcrum carries six [infrared] seeking missiles. So that guy had six rounds, and each one of them was a kill shot? You’ve got a real freaking good day.”

The MiG-29 “Fulcrum” is a Soviet-designed fighter jet outfitted for air-to-air combat. It officially entered service in 1983. The Su-35, which is an improved version of the older Su-27, is Russia’s most advanced jet currently in service. Aside from its lack of stealth capabilities, the Su-35 is comparable to the United States’ F-22 Raptor.

Russian SU-35
A Russian Su-35. The “Ghost of Kyiv” is rumored to have downed two of these, Russia’s most formidable fighter jets. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense did not respond to Coffee or Die’s query regarding the claim made in the meme, but Lt. Gen. Valery Zaluzhnyi, commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, posted on Facebook Thursday that at least six Russian planes and two helicopters were destroyed in the first day of the invasion. The post said nothing about a single pilot being responsible for taking out the six downed planes.

“Looking at this particular meme — the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ — that moniker is very quickly gaining ground, and it just doesn’t seem credible,” said Rick Schumacher, who served as an Army psychological operations specialist for more than a decade and oversaw a counterpropaganda team in Iraq. “You don’t come up with a legend in a day. It doesn’t happen that way. You’re talking, like, Red Baron numbers, and that guy didn’t get his name until long after the events.”

While the “Ghost of Kyiv” is likely nothing more than internet propaganda, the narrative has served as a rallying cry for Ukrainians and others around the world hoping that Ukraine can repel Russia’s forces and prevent the toppling of the national government, which is based in Kyiv.

kyiv under siege
People look at the exterior of a damaged residential block hit by an early morning missile strike Friday, Feb. 25, 2022, in Kyiv, Ukraine. On Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022, Russia began a large-scale attack on Ukraine, with Russian troops invading the country from the north, east, and south, accompanied by airstrikes and shelling. The Ukrainian president said that at least 137 Ukrainian soldiers were killed by the end of the first day. Photo by Chris McGrath via Getty Images.

“It’s our assessment that they have every intention of decapitating the government and installing their own method of governance, which would explain these early moves towards Kyiv,” a US defense official told Time magazine Thursday.

Russian special operations soldiers entered Ukraine’s capital city Friday and clashed with Ukrainian forces in a northern district of Kyiv called Obolon, which is about 6 miles north of the city center, and explosions and gunfire were heard in the city throughout the day.

Ukrainian forces repelled the attack but are now bracing for a larger assault from armored Russian units advancing toward Kyiv from multiple directions. Ukrainian Territorial Defense Force units, composed of civilian volunteers, have been activated and armed to defend key infrastructure sites around the city. Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense has asked the capital city’s residents to shelter at home, prepare Molotov cocktails, and “neutralize the enemy.”

tough choices ukraine
A basic military skills course for civilians in Kyiv, Ukraine, Jan. 31, 2022. Photo by Nolan Peterson/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Though Wallace said the claims about the “Ghost of Kyiv” were likely untrue, he pointed out that the stakes for Ukrainians defending their homeland are a powerful motivation to accept extreme risk.

“As far as the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ is concerned, Ukrainian pilots are protecting their families and homeland,” Wallace said. “Russians, on the other hand, don’t really give a shit about much of anything other than protecting themselves. The acceptable level of risk for a Ukrainian pilot is much higher.”

Read Next: Kyiv Under Siege: Russians Enter City After Second Night of Missile Strikes

Mac Caltrider
Mac Caltrider

Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.

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