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Finding a Russian Tochka missile launch site...probably
A few weeks ago, I listened to a great podcast on which a guest basically said try to be right when doing analysis, but in case you’re not right, the next best thing is to be wrong for the right reasons. In case I’m wrong today, I hope by presenting an enormous amount of evidence for what I’m trying to prove, I’m at least wrong for the right reasons. With that said…let’s do this.
On July 8, a pro-Russia Telegram group posted a video of Russian forces firing an OTR-21 Tochka ballistic missile, before deleting the video a few minutes later.
To explain the deletion, the Telegram group administrators said they inadvertently published a piece of fake news - they claimed Ukrainian forces had sent the group the video and the administrators didn’t notice it due to the “huge amount of information…pouring in”. The pro-Russian group said it was the Ukrainians who fired the Tochka, after dressing a launcher up with the Russian flag and the notorious “Z” symbol.
The Tochka is a nasty missile. It’s ancient, enormous, indiscriminate, inaccurate, and, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, no longer fielded by Russian forces. Today, I aim to show that not only is the missile still in use, the video above shows the missile being used to strike Ukrainian forces fighting near Hulyaipole on July 7, the evening before the video was posted.
So what’s going on in this video?
At first glance, the video doesn’t show much: basically just a Tochka missile streaking into a clear, blue sky from a small field surrounded by trees. The text overlaid on the video says:
Hulyaipole, good evening, we are from Dagestan.
As you can probably tell, there aren’t many distinctive features that could help one locate the site portrayed in the video. No town name, no date or time specified, no roads or towers or anything like that. It’s got a couple sheds, a couple trees, and an upright post. I initially tried looking around in southern Ukraine for locations that match these features but quickly realized that was a fool’s errand. I’d run myself ragged before I found anything solid.
So instead I took the opposite approach: looking for patterns in Russian missile use. If I could find where Russian Tochka missiles have been seen previously in and around Ukraine1, I might be able to triangulate possible common launch locations.
While Tochkas have been seen throughout Russian-occupied territory, I noticed a few important loci, including Melitopol, southern Belarus, Luhansk, and eastern Donetsk. The Donetsk one in particular stuck out to me because it lies along a major supply route into Ukraine from Russia and would be within range of much of the war’s frontlines.
Tochka missile launchers were spotted traveling along the H21 highway in eastern Donetsk at least twice during the war. Additionally, analysts suspect that the Russian Tochka missile involved in the catastrophic Kramatorsk railway station attack was fired from that region.
Then, a breakthrough. I found that members of many, many Donetsk Telegram channels post regular videos of what they call “air defense” missiles flying over their heads to destroy incoming Ukrainian projectiles. Problem is, lots of these alleged air defense missiles don’t end in apparent interceptions - no explosion in the sky, no debris, no loud blasts, etc.
Of course, there’s no law that says air defense missiles (especially Russian ones) have to hit whatever they’re aiming at2. But that nonetheless got me thinking: could someone have inadvertently filmed the Tochka launch thinking it was a run-of-the-mill air defense missile?
Thursday, July 7, 2022 was a beautiful day in Donetsk. Warm, sunny, light breeze, not a cloud in the sky. It would have been a lovely day for parks and picnics if it wasn’t for the artillery duels ongoing between Russian and Ukrainian forces west of Donetsk city.
The similarities between the weather in Donetsk on July 7 and the weather in the video are striking, whereas the weather for the week prior was either mostly or partly cloudy.
There were a few “air defense” launches on July 7, but there was only one in the evening — and, after all, the video of the Tochka launch said good evening, not good morning, good afternoon, or good day.
At 7:02pm3 that day, residents in a Telegram group for Khartsyzk, a town in eastern Donetsk Oblast situated along the H21 highway, heard a strange noise. Some folks thought it was an airplane, others thought it was an air defense system, and still others thought it was something else.
At 7:04pm, an air raid alert was issued for Donetsk Oblast. At 7:06pm, an air raid alert was issued for Zaporizhia Oblast, directly west of Donetsk.
And at 7:07pm, a large flash was detected in Myrne, Zaporizhia, just southwest of Hulyaipole.
As a side note, a Tochka missile causes a massive blast when it detonates. See this video of a Belarusian Tochka strike during an exercise in 2020, for example.
Satellite imagery of the flash location near Hulyaipole taken a few days afterwards shows blackened, scorched land consistent with a massive fire or heavy fighting.
These four events — the loud noise, the two air raid alerts, and the flash — have a clear southwest orientation over time. They precisely reflect the trajectory a Tochka missile would have taken from Donetsk to Hulyaipole.
But that evidence, if that can be called evidence at all, is not very strong. What if the sound near Khartsyzk was simply an airplane or an air defense missile and not a Tochka? Or what if it was a Tochka but was fired north, well away from Hulyaipole?
Luckily, witnesses posted a series of pictures and videos showing the vapor trail of whatever it was that caused the noise. Two in particular are worthy of note.4
First, the photo below shows a profile of the missile’s vapor trail. It provides a general location of where in Khartsyzk the missile may have been launched from.
Residents of a different apartment complex on the northern outskirts of Khartsyzk also noticed the launch. This photo not only allows us to narrow down the likely launch zone but also determine the direction of the launch.
If you were to extend that arrow, you’d arrive at — you guessed it — the location of the flash southwest of Hulyaipole.
The Trolley Problem
Now that the likely launch location has been narrowed down to a zone on the northern edge of Khartsyzk, let’s reexamine the video of the Tochka launch.
On my, oh, let’s say 231st watch of the video, I nearly gasped. I realized that, for a few frames at 0:03 seconds into the video, there’s not one post visible, but three.
As faint as they may be, they highly imply the launch took place next to a road, with these posts — whatever they are — bordering the road. But what are those posts? They don’t have lights on them, so they’re probably not lampposts. They don’t have any visible wires (at least at the top) so they’re probably not telephone or cable poles.
That stumped me, until I stumbled upon a forum showcasing global public transit systems, with a special focus on those of the former Soviet Union. I pulled up the page for the Khartsyzk trolleybus, navigated to the road at the northern edge of town, and started paging through some photos.
Lo and behold, the road bordering the likely launch zone is lined with electric trolleybus poles of the exact same size, color, shape, and orientation as those in the Tochka video.
Moreover, the tops of many of these trolleybus poles are bare, with the wires only appearing roughly halfway down the pole, which explains why we can’t see any visible wires in the Tochka video.
Now we finally have enough to build a basic diagram of what the launch site looks like. Please excuse my poor graphic design skills.
After a bit of searching, I came across a likely location smack in the middle of the probable launch zone. It’s got the two sheds, yellow wall, line of trees, and three trolleybus poles all visible from a vantage point that would show the Tochka being launched to the southwest.
The Google Maps link to the location is here, if you’d like to take a look yourself. In case you’re wondering, the shadows seen in the launch video also match up well with the shadow profile of that location at 7:02pm on July 7.
Unfortunately, the last publicly available, high resolution imagery of the possible launch location was taken in September 2020, which precludes an assessment of any recent updates to the site.
But as a launch location, it makes a good degree of sense. It’s well hidden by trees and is situated on Khartsyzk’s main ring road which, in turn, allows access to the H21 highway. But, perhaps most of all, the field is surrounded by civilian infrastructure. These apartment blocks, homes, sheds, and gardens make it less likely that Ukrainian forces would try to strike the launcher for fear of hurting civilians. Diabolical!
Finally, remember how the text overlaid on the video said “we are from Dagestan5”? As a Ukrainian news site points out, “Dagestan” may indicate that the missile was launched by “47th missile brigade of the Southern Military District of the Russian Armed Forces”. Earlier this year, the Conflict Intelligence Team reported that the 47th missile brigade is headquartered just down the road from Khartsyzk in eastern Donetsk Oblast.
There is, however, one main reason this may not be the correct site of the launch. It’s located 158 kilometers away from the site of the flash in Hulyaipole. The maximum stated range of the Tochka missile is 120 kilometers. Atmospheric conditions may extend the missile’s maximum range — there was, for instance, a light tailwind in the direction of Hulyaipole on July 7. But I’m not sure if that would fully explain a 38-kilometer range extension.
If this is indeed the correct location, the other possibility is that the missile was an upgraded Tochka model, known as the Scarab C, which allegedly has a maximum range of 185 kilometers. But according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “this model was likely never made operational”. There is, of course, the chance that this is a previously unknown Tochka model or one with additional modifications. But I’d need additional evidence to emerge before concluding anything definitive.
To recap, the available evidence — the video of the launch itself, the loud noise, the cascading air raid alerts, the flash near Hulyaipole, the weather, the time of day, the witness images, the trolleybus poles, the geolocation, and finally the Dagestan reference — all seem to indicate that Russian forces fired a Tochka missile from the northern outskirts of Khartsyzk. It flew southwest for about five minutes and 158 kilometers from 7:02 to 7:07pm before detonating during heavy fighting with the Ukrainian military in Myrne, Zaporizhia.
While I believe the overwhelming evidence still points to the northern outskirts of Khartsyzk as the likely launch location, despite the range issue, I’d love to hear from you if you disagree. And if I’m wrong, I hope I’m at least wrong for the right reasons. So, correct location or not? You be the judge.
A big thank you to @ameliairheart for proofreading and providing valuable thoughts and comments for the final piece. Give her a follow if you like planes!
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Complicating this immensely is that both Russia and Ukraine use Tochka missiles, which can make searching for Tochkas a circular, he-said, she-said endeavor.
All times in this piece are Donetsk local time (GMT +3).
I debated not including these over privacy concerns, but decided to keep them in for a few reasons. First, they are public — anyone can find them and they were posted to Telegram groups with tens of thousands of members. Second, the witnesses themselves didn’t post them, the administrators of the Telegram groups did. And finally, they are simply incredibly compelling pieces of evidence of the Tochka launch. Nonetheless, I’ve removed references to vantage points and only chosen to include media that doesn’t show faces, apartments, or personally identifiable information.
Dagestan is a republic in southwest Russia.