As the war in Ukraine enters its second month, the defenders continue to contest the skies and deny Russia control of the airspace above their country.
It remains a bitter air fight that comes at a high cost in lives and equipment. The independent Ukrainian outlet Ukrayinska Pravda keeps a running tab of destroyed Russian equipment atop its online news site. Ukraine’s government claims that so far it has shot down at least 115 Russian jets and 125 helicopters.
Those claims can’t be independently verified and most analysts think the true number of destroyed Russian aircraft is far smaller. Even so, it’s a remarkable feat for Ukraine facing off Russia’s much larger and more sophisticated air force.
Ukraine won’t say how many of its pilots, planes and other air assets have been lost. Some analysts believe the number is at least 22 aircraft, including several Su-25 attack planes, Su-27s, and at least three MiG-29 fighter jets.
One of the Ukrainian MiG pilots was Maj. Stepan Tarabalka. He was killed when his plane was shot down on March 13, according to the Ukrainian military and his family.
The conflict has touched every part of Ukraine
Tarabalka was recently buried in a cemetery in Korolivka near Kolomyia, not far from the airfield that inspired him to become a military flyer. Korolivka is a small town, underscoring that Russia’s war has touched every part of Ukraine, from the obliterated streets of major cities such as Mariupol to the smallest countryside villages.
I’d arranged to meet Tarabalka’s parents, Natalia and Ivan, in a park in Kolomyia to talk about their son. However, as we head toward a bench to sit down on a warm spring day, an air raid alert intervenes. Natalia suggests a basement shelter close by. It happens to be the music school their son had attended and loved.
Ivan, his eyes bloodshot and sad with a father’s grief, brightens a little when he realizes we’ll be talking in the basement where Stepan learned to play the trumpet.
“Maybe God led us here, to his classroom … to talk about his life,” Ivan says.
Like all of western Ukraine, the Ivano Frankivsk district, where Kolomyia is located, is deeply religious. Ornate and sometimes jarringly large Ukrainian Greek Catholic churches and shrines dot every village.
And Natalia and Ivan are leaning on their faith as they mourn the sudden death of their only son.
As a child, Stephan would watch the MiG jets swoop in and out at the nearby military airfield in western Ukraine, his mother says. And when paratroopers fell from the sky during exercises at the field, he would race excitedly to get a better look.
“He would run in their direction to try to see where they landed,” Natalia recalls fondly, wiping away tears as she speaks. “Since early childhood, he always dreamed of the sky, about flying higher than the clouds.”
The dream of becoming a pilot
But the dream of being a pilot seemed at times out of reach. Stepan was a working-class kid from a small village. His parents live much of the year in Portugal, laboring there to earn more money than they could make at home.
Natalia says no one helped her son get ahead or cut him a break. She’s proud he achieved his goals on his own.
“It was difficult. We didn’t have any military connections, no one to ask advice and help us,” she says. “Becoming a pilot – it was his own effort, he did it all himself. He always found a way. I just helped with prayers.”
She says that after Stepan made it through military and flight school, whenever possible, he loved to fly over the western villages, dipping his MiG-29 wings in salute.
“At any opportunity, he would fly close to our house, do a little aerobatic trick to show what he’d learned, and how he could fly,” his mother recalls. “And everyone in the village, every house, and all the villages around would know that it is Stepan flying.”
His grandmother, Natalia says, would be particularly excited and proud of the fly-overs. “Stepan was her favorite. She would always run out of the house when she heard Stepan was flying over, watch all his tricks.”
Fighting to repel the Russian invaders
Eventually, he put his flying skills to use in combat — fighting for his country in the 2014 conflict with Russia over the eastern Donbas region, flying support missions, and then as a fighter pilot when Russia invaded last month.
His dad, Ivan, returned from his construction job in Portugal to the village after getting word that his son had been shot down flying a mission against the Russians. The Ukrainian military wouldn’t give NPR any details on his final flight.
Ivan says that the family hasn’t been told much, either. “We know he was flying on a mission, and that he completed his mission, his task,” he says quietly. “And then he didn’t return. That’s really all the information we have.”
Russian leader Vladimir Putin thought his forces would have an easy time in Ukraine, Ivan says, “but this war has only united all Ukrainians from West to East. It has made us one.”
Ukraine’s military has been bolstered in its fight by man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS, such as Stinger missiles — many sent by the U.S. and its NATO allies — as well as air defense systems in place before Russia’s invasion. Other weapons, including Switchblade drones, are also reportedly on their way.
Ukraine wants more powerful weapons
But Ukraine is desperate for more powerful air-defense systems that its soldiers already know how to operate — including Russian-made S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries. It’s not clear the Biden administration will be able to broker a deal to deliver such weapons. NATO member Slovakia has offered to send S-300s to Ukraine if the alliance can find it suitable replacements.
Stepan’s 27-year-old younger sister, Julia, is having a hard time with the news, their mother says, as if it’s all not quite real. She thinks the war will end and her big brother will come back alive.
Natalia is upset that she couldn’t see her son’s body. It was a closed casket. The military told her it was best that way.
“It’s hard for any mother to lose a child. But it’s even harder for us that we couldn’t see him,” she says, dabbing away tears. “But maybe the fact that I couldn’t see him gives me hope, in a way, that he’s somewhere, that he’s still alive.”
Maj. Stepan Tarabalka, who leaves behind a wife, Olena, and their 8-and-a-half-year-old son, Yarik, was posthumously awarded one of Ukraine’s top military medals for bravery in combat, the Order of the Golden Star, and given the title Hero of Ukraine.
“Of course, he had already earned and deserved this medal, this honor, when he was with us,” Ivan says. “We are proud of him. But we wish he would get this honor after the war. We wish he were still alive.”
Stepan is still in the sky, he says, “protecting all of his brothers in arms, protecting Ukraine, until the victory. Victory is the only solution.”
NPR producers Iryna Matviyishyn and Julian Hayda contributed to this story.