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Information Warfare & the Ghost of Kyiv

February 12, 2024


Morgan Bingle

Information Warfare (IW) may thrive on banality and on inserting ideas into the minds of its audience without that audience being aware, but to see this as a unilateral or one-way process is a dangerous oversimplification of the subject. In truth the sources, audiences, and purposes of the pieces which make up a larger IW campaign are not separate or stove-piped but intermixed and constantly interacting with each other to produce the outcomes of the information campaign. The source may become an audience or vice versa, each may have their own purpose or purposes for supporting the same narrative, and each may exist simultaneously as both influenced and influencer. For example, consider the roles of each party within the story of the Ghost of Kyiv and how those roles change over time.

In the opening hours of the Russia-Ukraine war in February 2022, videos emerged on social media claiming to show a Ukrainian jet shooting down Russian aircraft at close range and low altitudes. The exact origins are disputed, but sources cite either a cell-phone video posted to YouTube or a series of tweets,[1] both posted on the invasion’s first day. Picked up by internet users both inside and beyond Ukraine, the videos quickly went viral, becoming the basis for a story that an anonymous Ukrainian pilot had shot down six Russian planes and become the first European “fighter ace” since World War Two. A fighter ace or flying ace is a pilot who has shot down five or more enemy aircraft. By the war’s second day the pilot had been christened the “Ghost of Kyiv”[2] – a name cemented by the country’s former president, Petro Poroshenko, when he tweeted a photo of a helmeted pilot sitting in the cockpit of a fighter jet.[3] By the third day of the war, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) was tweeting its own video about the Ghost, which consolidated several of the other pre-existing videos.[4]

The story of the Ghost was never air-tight though, and questions arose about the story’s veracity within the first twenty-four hours. Articles emerged online pointing out that the feats attributed to the Ghost were extremely unlikely even in ideal circumstances, far less for a pilot flying a 30-year-old plane against an enemy with overwhelming numerical and qualitative advantages in the air. Online sleuths also determined by the war’s second day that several pieces of footage had been lifted from recordings of the video game Digital Combat Simulator (DCS) and layered over footage of real-life Kyiv.[5]

The questions would continue all the way to the Ghost’s reported death in late April,[6] which some newspapers[7] and tabloids[8] reported as fact despite overwhelming evidence available by then that the Ghost was entirely fictional. Photos claiming to have shown the Ghost kneeling by his plane had been proven to have been taken in Canada. Another that claimed to show the Ghost being hoisted aloft in celebration of another successful mission had been discredited when the photo’s subject was identified as an Argentinian lawyer.[9] Around this time though, the Ukrainian Air Force finally admitted that while the pilot whose name had been attributed to the Ghost by the media had truly been killed, the Ghost of Kyiv was not real but: “a superhero legend whose figure was created by Ukrainians! This is a faster national image of pilots of the 40th Air Force tactical aviation brigade, who protect the sky of the capital. Who suddenly appear where they are not expected!” A statement that was ironically followed by exhortations not to spread false or misleading information and to “Keep calm and use official sources of information.”[10]

Understanding how control of the Ghost’s narrative shifted over time is important for understanding propaganda and IW broadly. The Ghost’s origins more than likely lie with a civilian Twitter user within Ukraine — specifically, someone who created the video as an act of wishful defiance and storytelling, using editing tools and the video games they understood in the face of a real-world event they likely could not fully comprehend. This act of creation made the Ukrainian government merely an audience through the Ghost’s first few hours of existence. Yet the Ukrainian government quickly adopted the Ghost of Kyiv and pushed the story into the limelight and the online virality it achieved – thereby changing the government from audience to creator. Then as the story spread further online and acquired foreign audiences the situation became further confused, as reports and re-posts simultaneously spread the narrative’s reach and produced additional content both digital and physical through merchandise.

It is also noteworthy that this process continued even as evidence of the Ghost’s fabrication accumulated. Part of reason for this can likely be traced back to those articles that brought the Ghost to the attention of American and other English-language audiences. The articles almost universally led with accounts of the Ghost’s reports on social media and buried the evidence of fabrication at the bottom of the columns. This narrative pattern appeared everywhere from the pop-science site IFLScience[11] to Task and Purpose,[12] a website marketed to military and defense professionals. The Task and Purpose article is especially important because it explicitly lays out that while the author’s recognize the story is likely untrue, they simply want to believe, and highlights the Twitter posts of others holding the same view. As a writing approach it simultaneously absolves the authors of their knowledge, gives readers permission to similarly disregard the probability of fabrication, and familiarizes readers with a larger body of similar material.

The blurring of truth and fiction was not limited to the question of who the source was and who was the audience though – similar overlaps appeared between the narrative’s multiple purposes. The use of the Ghost story was clearly to inspire hope and rally Ukrainians to stand for their country, a goal likely held in common between the civilian population and government. But when the Ghost is placed alongside other stories from those first days of the war like the battle for Snake Island or President Zelensky’s supposed quote of “I need ammo, not a ride!”[13] the Ghost’s narrative starts to appear to be part of a larger pattern. It seems to be one of several narratives advanced by the Ukrainian government that cast the country as effectively resisting the invasion and surviving in the face of overwhelming pressure. An image that stood in direct contrast to the collapse of the Afghan government only five months earlier, and one that presented Ukraine as a dependable partner country worthy of receiving billions of dollars in foreign military aid.[14] While this framing for the international community fell squarely within a traditional government narrative, it was also adopted by activist elements of Ukraine’s civilian population who folded the Ghost of Kyiv into their own set of stories and symbols which sought to demonstrate Ukraine’s resolve. This blurring of roles between civilian and state actors became further confused because the adoption of the story by non-Ukrainians for whom repetition or support of the Ghost’s narrative was a means of signaling their overall support for Ukraine’s war effort. The use of the Ghost story also both supports the broader goal of attracting aid to Ukraine and returns to the Ghost’s original goal of rallying Ukrainians to defend their country – though this time by eliciting signals of foreign support directly from the populations of foreign states.

In the Ghost of Kyiv’s story we see its sources, audiences, and purposes intermingling to produce outcomes both expected and unexpected. There is a lot more to unpack that the Ghost of Kyiv story illuminates, such as the back-and-forth exchange of roles between the Ukrainian government and its people, each serving as both audience and creator of the Ghost narrative. Or, the way in which foreign commentators, especially military experts, willfully and publicly laid aside the facts of the case to push forward what they acknowledged was the more desirable story rather than the likeliest. Each a complex set of three-way interactions between the Ukrainian people, the state, and foreign audiences which occurred in parallel with the constant interaction between the sources, audiences, and purposes of the narrative itself.


[1] Keller, Jared. “’The Ghost of Kyiv’ Is the First Urban Legend of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine.” ‘The Ghost of Kyiv’ is the first urban legend of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Task & Purpose, February 25, 2022.

[2] نيويورك خالد. “This Ukrainian Pilot Is Becoming a Legend in Kyiv, He Has Successfully Challenged 6 Russian Pilots Alone.. They Are Calling Him the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’.#Ukraineinvasion#Ukrainian” Twitter. Twitter, February 25, 2022.

[3] Poroshenko, Petro. “На Фото – Пілот Міг-29. Той Самий ‘Привид Києва’. Він Викликає Жах у Ворогів Та Гордість в Українців На Його Рахунку 6 Перемог Над Російськими Пілотами! З Такими Потужними Захисниками Україна Точно Переможе! PIC.TWITTER.COM/GJLPCJ31SI.” Twitter. Twitter, February 25, 2022.

[4] Україна, Ukraine /. “People Call Him the Ghost of Kyiv. and Rightly so – This UAF Ace Dominates the Skies over Our Capital and Country, and Has Already Become a Nightmare for Invading Russian Aircrafts.” Twitter. Twitter, February 27, 2022.

[5] Keller, Jared. “’The Ghost of Kyiv’ Is the First Urban Legend of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine.” Task and Purpose

[6] Bubola, Emma. “Ukraine Acknowledges That the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ Is a Myth.” The New York Times, May 1, 2022.

[7] Bubola, Emma. “Ukraine Acknowledges That the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ Is a Myth.” The New York Times,

[8] Brown, Lee. “‘Ghost of Kyiv’ Killed in Battle, Identity Revealed.” New York Post, April 29, 2022.

[9] Eisele, Ines. “Fact Check: The ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ Fighter Pilot – DW – 05/04/2022.” Deutsche Welle, May 4, 2022.

[10] “Командування Повітряних Сил ЗСУ / Air Force Command of UA Armed Forces.” Facebook, April 30, 2022.

[11] Felton, James. “First Photo of ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ Revealed by Former President of Ukraine.” IFLScience. IFLScience, February 28, 2022.

[12] Keller, Jared. “’The Ghost of Kyiv’ Is the First Urban Legend of Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine.” Task and Purpose

[13] Kessler, Glenn. “Zelensky’s Famous Quote of ‘Need Ammo, Not a Ride’ Not Easily Confirmed.” The Washington Post, March 6, 2022.

[14] Shabad, Rebecca, and Shannon Pettypiece. “Last Plane Carrying Americans from Afghanistan Departs as Longest U.S. War Concludes.”, August 30, 2021.