Did The 'Ghost Of Kyiv' Begin As A Cover Story?
Wartime secrecy and mythmaking
Major media organizations did their best to discover the identity of the so-called ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ and concluded that he did not exist. Then yesterday, a ‘Ghost’ was posthumously identified as Major Stepan Tarabalka (see photo) in local press reports.
Tarabalka was reputed to have 40 kills when he was shot down on 13 March. The fog of war is thickest wherever the boundaries are blurred, such as in the sky. But let us assume that Tarabalka was a real man, aged 29, who had a family and died defending his country well. We have no reason to disbelieve this much reporting.
It is very possible, though unlikely, that Tarabalka had six confirmed kills over Kyiv on the first day of combat. Simple probability says that no single person was ever the singular ghost. His squadron mates will know how real the kill count is. In fact, they would probably recount and describe his victories in great detail for a classified debriefing, but for now they are mum. Good operational security has been a key source of Ukrainian success in this war, so we will probably never get the full details until it is over.
What we cannot doubt is Tarabalka’s heroism. Ukraine will have many new statues to put up when their war is over, and he will do just fine for a monument to their heroic aviators, whatever the truth turns out to be.
For the Ukrainian Air Force has far exceeded expectations. Few observers thought that they would last more than a day or two against overwhelming odds. More than two months later, Ukraine still has air superiority in the western half of the country and contests Russian air superiority in the eastern half.
Still: what is the origin of this probably-but-maybe-not-mythical Ghost?
This writer has maintained for several weeks that Ukraine enjoys the support of US and NATO airborne early warning and control platforms capable of seeing across the Russian border. This analysis has been confirmed in outline. Russian planes are tracked from takeoff. Russian pilot communications and passive radar threat warning systems are vulnerable to jamming. Controllers can vector a fighter to an intercept of the blinded intruder, approaching from their six o’clock for an easy missile kill, all while tracking the next incoming target.
This is the style of warfare taught to Ukrainian pilots in western air combat schools since 2014. But Ukraine did not have any E2-D Hawkeyes or AWACS planes before the war, nor do they own any such aircraft now. American airborne support was therefore necessary, yet entirely secret on Day One. I propose that the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ may have been invented as a cover story to explain the extraordinary success of courageous Ukrainian pilots without disclosing the nature of active western support.
During the first 24 hours, everyone noticed Ukraine was having unexpected success defending their capital. It was impossible to miss. Russian planes were dying like gnats in a cloud of insecticide and observers wondered how that was possible.
Maybe Ukraine invented the Ghost of Kyiv to explain it and then found him too useful as a propaganda symbol to let go. Put another way, if Stepan Tarabalka did not exist, he would have to be invented.
Or — and again, this is only an outside chance — the Ghost existed. With some help from his country’s allies, perhaps Stepan Tarabalka really did achieve six air combat victories over Kyiv in the first 24 hours of the Russian offensive. If so, then it speaks to the power of strategic intelligence integration as well as the skill of Ukrainian warfighters.
Or maybe the Ghost was a propaganda creation to explain Ukrainian success and then Tarabalka, the country’s top ace, was given credit at his death so as to bury the myth and monumentalize it.
The more interesting question that follows is why so many of us want a specific, named Ghost to have existed. Whatever the origin of this myth, it is popular all around the world, inspiring a whole generation of would-be Top Gun pilots. The legend of the Ghost of Kyiv will never die.
The legend of Stepan Tarabalka is also undying. It only remains to be seen how closely the legend and the man will connect as fact.