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The Missileers, Part II
When - and where - Russia has launched the Tochka missiles they say they don't have
Highlights from today’s post:
Baby’s first Streamlit app, which you can see here
Visualizations of the dates, ranges, strike locations, and launch locations of Russia’s Tochka missiles in Ukraine
The rise, fall, and departure from this mortal coil of Russia’s Tochkas
Why Russia’s use of Tochka missiles is such a weird thing for them to lie about
I’ve been a little obsessed with Tochka missiles recently. In case you haven’t read my first piece diving into one specific launch of a Tochka in Ukraine, you can do so here:
For some background: the OTR 21 Tochka is a nearly 50-year-old Russian tactical ballistic missile. They’re inertially guided (inaccurate), road mobile (can be launched from most places), and carry a warhead of over 1,000 pounds of high explosives (big boom). They’re also, according to paragons of truth over in the Russian Ministry of Defense, no longer fielded by Russian armed forces. I think that last point is why I’ve been so fascinated by these missiles recently: despite dozens and dozens of examples to the contrary, Russia steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that they still use the Tochka.
In the course of my research into my first blog post about Russia’s launch of a Tochka missile in Khartsyzk, I came across one or two1 other instances of Russian forces launching or transporting Tochka missiles in and around Ukraine. I told myself that when I had the time, I’d properly log all these appearances and, well, here we are.
Using my own research as well as a variety of public databases and social media posts from folks like GeoConfirmed, the Centre for Information Resilience, and Jake Godin, I compiled a somewhat comprehensive database of Russian2 Tochka missile strikes and launchers throughout Ukraine. After adding a bit of metadata like whether the appearance consisted of a Tochka missile after it had been fired or the missile launcher itself, I had enough data for a fairly robust database of my own.
This scatter plot shows the rise and fall of Russian Tochka missiles in Ukraine. Missiles were fired daily — sometimes more than once per day — between the beginning of the invasion in late February and early May. They petered out between May and August, with a minor spike in southern theater launches in late July, before stopping completely in late August3.
The last evidence I could find of a Russian Tochka strike or launcher was on August 29, when residents of Torez, in eastern Ukraine, spotted a single Tochka launcher driving west amid dozens of other Russian military vehicles.
But I wasn’t satisfied with just the scatterplot. I wanted to see if there were patterns in where these missiles landed or were launched from.
Let’s get [Stream]lit
(If you want to skip all the explanation and just want to play around with some maps, then click here to see the Streamlit site)
In my database, there were far more appearances of where the missiles landed as opposed to where they were launched from4. I also knew that the maximum range of a Tochka missile is 120 kilometers. To get a better idea of their probable launch locations, I used a bit of Python to “draw” 120-kilometer radii around each location a Tochka missile landed in. This approach not only showed the range of these missiles across Ukraine, but also by coloring the areas of overlap, it shows approximately where the missiles were most likely launched from.
Take the Tochka launches in northern Ukraine, for example. On its own, the database doesn’t tell us a whole lot — basically just that there were nine Tochka strikes and launchers seen in and around the northern theater5.
But after adding the radii for these locations and coloring the areas of overlap, we can tell that the most likely launch area for many of them may have been a strip of land between the southern tip of Belarus and the center of Ukraine’s Chernihiv Oblast (basically the darkest section on this map):
I repeated the process for the southern and eastern theaters and added a fourth map showing Russian Tochka launches in all theaters. I also added a link to download a csv file of my database if you’d like to add to it or analyze/visualize/play around with it yourself.
If you want to check out the interactive dashboard with all these features (and more!), you can find it here.
One thing I haven’t been able to do so far is find a way to overlay frontlines onto the Streamlit maps. That would narrow down the launch locations even more. One way that might look is below:
Also, I want to nerd out for a moment on Streamlit. You guys, it’s so freaking cool. With Streamlit, you can create beautiful, rich, publication-worthy dashboards, apps, and mini-websites with tons of functionality all while using an absolute minimum of Python. Even better, you can run these dashboards locally or deploy them from a Github repo so they live in Streamlit’s cloud platform indefinitely (which is what I did for this project). And yes, it’s free.
Anyway, check out the dashboard and let me know what you think of it - I’m definitely eager for any suggestions or observations you’ve got.
But the real point of this dashboard is to show that despite Russia saying — again and again — that they no longer use Tochka missiles, the truth is not just that they still fire Tochkas, but that they’ve fired so many that they can be reliably tracked, located, and plotted on maps. Hard evidence hasn’t exactly been a barrier to the Russian armed forces lying about the war, but their claims about Tochkas are so baldly and consistently false that it boggles the mind.
Lying about, say, a staged attack on a nuclear power plant is one thing — kayfabe and propaganda are time-honored strategies, after all — but lying about 65 separate Tochka missile sightings goes beyond that. It denies a shared, observable reality in favor of an alternate, constructed one. An alternate reality in which the Russian military says “We don’t fire the missiles, they fire the missiles. We’re not going to blow up the nuclear power plant, they’re going to blow up the nuclear power plant. We’re not the Nazis, they’re the Nazis”.
And if this dashboard pushes us even one iota closer to seeing the nature of the Russian military’s alternate reality, I’ll call it a job well done.
Sixty five, to be exact.
To be clear, Ukraine also fields Tochka missiles but a. Doesn’t lie about their use and b. Doesn’t use them to hit civilians nearly as frequently as Russia does. This piece will only focus on Russia’s use of Tochka missiles. And if you know of any that I inadvertently left off, please let me know!
The dates for these launches may be a little off, since there could be a lag between when the missiles were fired and when the remnants were found.
Intuitively, this makes sense. Tochka launchers can drive away from the launch site, making them hard to spot, while the craters and debris from the missile strikes themselves are more permanent and more visible.
This is almost certainly a gross undercount, as this just accounts for Tochkas that I was able to find a more or less precise location for. Several additional Tochkas were found, e.g. in the “Kyiv region”, which was far too general for my purposes.