Ukraine Is Holding its Own in the Skies Against Russia, But it's Giving Up the 'Ghost of Kyiv'

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A Sukhoi Su-27 takes off from Starokostiantyniv Air Base, Ukraine.
A Sukhoi Su-27 takes off from Starokostiantyniv Air Base, Ukraine, Oct. 9 as part of the Clear Sky 2018 exercise. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Charles Vaughn)

Russia's forces have performed far worse than anticipated and, 70 days after the start of the country's invasion of neighbor Ukraine, Ukraine's air force is still holding its own -- thanks, in part, to American military equipment supplying the country with anti-air defenses.

Ukraine's forces have destroyed at least 26 Russian planes and 39 helicopters since the beginning of the invasion, according to Oryx, an open-source intelligence blog that keeps tabs on Russian military losses.

That success led to media reports of a legendary flying ace dubbed "The Ghost of Kyiv," a mythical pilot whose supposed exploits downing dozens of Russian aircraft spread like wildfire in the early days of the campaign when Ukrainian forces were looking for signs of hope.

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But after reports began to surface this week that the Ghost had been shot down and killed in combat, the country's air force was forced to confess that he was never real.

"The information about the death of the The Ghost of #Kyiv is incorrect," Ukraine's air force wrote on Twitter. "The #GhostOfKyiv is alive, it embodies the collective spirit of the highly qualified pilots of the Tactical Aviation Brigade who are successfully defending #Kyiv and the region."

Ukrainian Maj. Stepan Tarabalka was identified as the "Ghost of Kyiv'' by multiple media outlets last week, but the news was later clarified by the country's air force. He was a pilot who died in combat March 13 and was posthumously awarded the title Hero of Ukraine, but he was not the mythical flying ace.

But even without the Ghost, Ukraine's ability to hold its own against Russia's massive fleet has been notable.

One Ukrainian pilot interviewed by CNN on Wednesday, identified only by the call sign "Moonfish," told the news organization he believes Ukraine's pilots have had to get clever to push back against Russia's modern aircraft in the skies.

"We're still operating freely in the airspace that we control and, even though they are a massive fleet of more advanced aircraft, we're able to keep them away from the area we maintain," the pilot told CNN. "We did learn a couple of tricks on how to fight with that technological advancement."

Russia has been touting its Sukhoi SU-57 stealth fighter jet and has more than 120 SU-34 bombers, 360 attack helicopters and hundreds more jets in its fleet, according to a report from CNA, a nonprofit research organization that tracks military strength for the U.S. Navy.

But Russia has not been utilizing its full force, focusing less on air-to-air warfare and opting for long-range missiles to attack stationary targets.

In part, this has to do with the surge of anti-aircraft weapons the U.S. has given to Ukraine to aid in its fight against Russia.

So far, weapons approved to send to Ukraine include more than 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, upward of 5,500 Javelin anti-tank missiles, 700 Switchblade drones, and more than 120 Phoenix Ghost tactical drones.

The war is shifting to a new phase, with tough fighting expected in the east of the country as Russia tries to solidify its claims to separatist regions. How Russia's air strategy will change isn't yet clear, but Ukrainians don't appear to be relying on myth anymore. Their pilots are seeing real-world success in what continues to be a brutal, hard-fought campaign.

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

Related: Ukraine's Fighter Ace 'Ghost of Kyiv' May Be a Myth, But It's Lethal as War Morale

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