“British Defence Attaché, U.S.A.” – with Rear Admiral Tim Woods
Andrew Hammond: Welcome to "SpyCast," the official podcast of the International Spy Museum. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, the museum's Historian and Curator. Every week, we explore some aspect of the past, present, or future of intelligence and espionage. Please support the show by giving us a five-star review on Apple Podcasts or whatever platform you use to listen to your podcast. If you could leave a single sentence, it will help other listeners find us. [ Music ] This week's guest is the current British Defense Attaché to the United States of America, Rear Admiral Tim Woods. This is the first time we have had a defense attaché on "SpyCast." And to put it in context, Britain's relationship with the United States is its most important bilateral relationship, which means that getting this job in particular is no small feat in and of itself. Rear Admiral Woods comes to Washington from Kyiv, Ukraine, where he was the British Defense Attaché in the run-up to an outbreak of war in February 2022. He was also the Head of the British Defense Staff in Eastern Europe, commanding all defense attachés across Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine at a defining moment in European security. Tim has been in the Royal Navy for 35 years. And he has graduated from prestigious institutions such as the Royal Naval College, the University of Cambridge, and the Royal College of Defense Studies. In this episode, Tim and I discuss what does a defense attaché do, how intelligence impacts military strategy, his experience of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, and what it's like to constantly be surveilled by a hostile intelligence agency. The original podcast on intelligence since 2006, we are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. Well, thanks ever so much for taking the time to speak to me, Tim. I really appreciate you coming in. And it's quite interesting. We've never had a defense attaché on the show before. And the show has been running for 17 years now. So can you just tell our listeners a little bit more about what a defense attaché is for those that may not know?
Tim Woods: Thanks, Andrew. So I'm a Rear Admiral in the Royal Navy. I've been the Defense Attaché here in Washington for seven months now. Defense attachés are defense diplomats. And we are there to promote our own defense values. But also, we are there to meet with attachés from other countries. And it's all about sense, understand, and influence, and there are various aspects of that. So it can be at receptions where we -- and in informal chats, formal meetings, or demonstrations and exercises, so military exercises. So there's lots of different opportunities as being a defense attaché. But we are part of the embassy. And the head of mission or the ambassador is in overall charge. But I still report back to my defense secretary and my Chief of Defense Staff. So I'm their senior representative in country advocating our UK defense values.
Andrew Hammond: It seems to me that a defense attaché in some ways it's almost like if you think of the big years of international relations grinding against each other just by going out, meeting people from other countries, talking, building relationships that may last further down the line. People are in different positions. It can almost provide a little bit of lubricant in those big crunching gears. Is that a fair way to think about it, do you think?
Tim Woods: It is. So defense engagement is about creating relationships where you leave the politics aside. And the military-to-military relationship is often the load-bearing one. I used to work for a former Chief of Defense Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, who is now Lord Peach. He's our Prime Minister's Special Envoy to the Western Balkans. And he always used to tell me, you know, that it was important that when all other dialogue fails, it is the military-to-military relationship that allows important messages to be passed so that you end up with de-escalating rather than going to war. So defense engagement is that. It's diplomacy. It's understanding allies, partners, and foes. And it's mitigating where there are risks.
Andrew Hammond: So you don't just speak to your friends, you also speak to your -- You may have disagreements about certain things.
Tim Woods: So I was at an embassy reception, and I bumped into the Russian defense attaché. And I greeted him, "Dobriy vecher." And he looked at me, and he replied, "Dobriey vecher." And then he said, "UK?" And he turned his back and wouldn't speak to me, which was a shame.
Andrew Hammond: Really?
Tim Woods: Yeah. Because whilst I would not be able to invite him to my residence, and he would not be able to invite me, you know, at a third-party reception, it's a shame that we couldn't even acknowledge, or he would not acknowledge. But, you know, ordinarily, I can speak to any attaché in the world. And it's, you know, to be able to do that in a benign environment, in a third-party environment, it's important to maintain that dialogue.
Andrew Hammond: It's what Churchill called jaw, jaw.
Tim Woods: Jaw, jaw rather than war, war.
Andrew Hammond: Yeah, yeah. So you mentioned the ambassador is in overall charge. How does that work for UK service personnel in the United States or the -- Are you responsible for all of them, but you still report to the ambassador? Or is the ambassador responsible for them because your job is doing something different?
Tim Woods: So I'm responsible for them. So, just to put it into context, I have about 160 people who are under my direct command. And then we have a further 800 UK defense personnel across 30 states here in the United States. And I have admin authority for them. So their chain of command is either into their single service, so the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, or the British Army, or civil service. So, depending on what job they are doing, they will report back to someone in the UK who is the chain of command. But whilst they're out here, I provide all the support mechanisms. And I have quite a large US support group. And they are there to enable people to do their jobs. So they're like the oil in the gearbox.
Andrew Hammond: Mm-hmm. And would it be fair to describe this as the UK's most important bilateral relationship?
Tim Woods: Oh, definitely, definitely. I mean, we have defense attachés across almost 90 countries in the world. But it's only the US that we have an admiral or a general or a vice marshal. So it's like -- it's our -- this is our premier defense attaché role. And it has the largest team, hence, I have 160 under direct command. I have a one-star or commodore Royal Navy who looks off the naval relationship and with the US Marine Corps as well, where we -- he has a colonel Royal Marines who, again, invests in that relationship. I have a brigadier general who works with the US Army. And I have an air commodore who works with the US Air Force. And I have another brigadier who works -- he's our UK Strategic Command, which is not to be confused with the US Strategic Command because my brigadier doesn't do nuclear. But he does all the enablers like cyber and command and control systems.
Andrew Hammond: Mm-hmm. And so, in other countries, it's normally colonel that's --
Tim Woods: It depends on the country, but, yeah, normally the currency is sort of left and then colonel colonel.
Andrew Hammond: And just for our American listeners, I think the one that most of them would know about would be the army. Could you just tell them where a rear admiral would come in in the US?
Tim Woods: So in the US system, it would -- a rear admiral is a major general, so two-star.
Andrew Hammond: Mm-hmm. The other thing that I was wanting to ask was, I can only imagine how competitive it was to get the job here because it's the most important bilateral relationship because there's a lot at stake, there's a lot of responsibility. So, you know, there must be people around the world or back in the UK that are cursing, you know, Tim Woods. So how did you get the job?
Tim Woods: I mean, all of our two-star and above jobs are -- there's free and open competition. And it's the senior appointments committee that is chaired by the Chief of Defense Staff with all the service chiefs and also commander, United Kingdom Strategic Command, and our Vice Chief of Defense. They make up the sort of board. And to get to that, you have to go through your single service first. So it's quite a rigorous process. I'm not sure people are cursing, you know, but --
Andrew Hammond: [Laughing] I'm being playful.
Tim Woods: Yeah, yeah. But, you know, yeah, it is fiercely competitive.
Andrew Hammond: Just before we move on to your time in Washington, DC, one thing I've always been interested in because of our podcast, we've had on ambassadors, we've had on station chiefs, but we've never had on a defense attaché. And I've never read a study or a book that discusses that triad. And I find it really, really fascinating an embassy station chief, defense attaché, and ambassador. I know that you can't go into certain specifics. But on a more general level, as someone that has worked within the system, could you just enlighten our listeners about something about the nature of that relationship?
Tim Woods: So it is all about relationships. And this is my second embassy. And it's making sure that the relationships work. And that's one of the things I put on my why me statement, which is, you know, I recognize under sort of, we have what's called a one -- His Majesty's Government Model where the Ambassador is charged with delivering across everything from defense, security, economics, trade, you know, to make sure I fulfill my part in that.
Andrew Hammond: And are you sort of, Joe hatted? You report to the Ambassador, but do you also have the, you know, the head of the Royal Navy phoning up saying, I want you to do this, or what the heck are you doing?
Tim Woods: I mean, the head of the Royal Navy, I would obviously -- So this is fantastic. The first sea lord works through my naval attaché. So I effectively would report in to the Chief of Defense Staff. But I have a -- I also have a liaison officer in the Pentagon who works in the Joint Staff and works with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's office. And he is our Chief of Defense Staff liaison officer in the Pentagon. So often, he is the person who will get the phone calls from our Chief of Defense Staff. So, whilst my kind of direct boss is the ambassador, I'm kind of -- I do have a dual hat where I do go back into the Ministry of Defense, and ultimately I'm accountable to the Chief of Defense Staff.
Andrew Hammond: Mm-hmm. And can you just help our listeners understand what it's like to be the Defense Attaché in Washington, some of the experiences that you've had in these past months? So help us understand. So you get the job. You turn up, and then you're looking at the lay of the land. And you're thinking about the things that you've said that you want to accomplish or that you could bring to the role. How do you start? Do you have a notepad where you're like here's these things? Or do you go out and meet people initially and consult and then go back and formulate a plan? Or I'm assuming there were people here that you knew already. So you touch base with them and say I'm back in town. Let's meet up. Those sorts of things. Just help us understand how you sort of navigated that.
Tim Woods: So, in preparation, I would be reading our UK Defense Policy and, in particular, the relationship with the US and areas that we are developing capability with the US. So that would sort of drive me. And I would make sure that I had meetings with my liaison officers who were looking at those particular areas. I would understand, from my single service attachés, what their strategy and their plan was and how I can support that. And I would also have my writing instructions from the Chief of Defense Staff. And one of those actually was to, you know, be more involved in the think tank circuit because, obviously, there's a vibrant think tank community here in Washington. And there's an opportunity there to sense, understand influence and keep coming back to the whole importance of just getting out there to feel, you know, the temperature. So, for example, one of the things I knew before I came here was there is a lot of US concern over China and the rise of China and what that may end up happen -- you know, happening in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait. The palpable sense I had of that on arrival was fascinating in terms of what is it I've really kind of seen in my time here. On the extreme end, it's, you know, just talking about war happening. Whereas the more moderate side, especially, you know, listening to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in his appropriations hearing, you know, very measured, far more, you know, look, this is about competition. This is not inevitable. I've heard others say that it's important not to force she to do something that she doesn't want to do, to go to war and tank his economy. So, yeah, I think -- that's a long way of saying that when I got out here, it was a case of, right, going around meeting people and just to start to feel the temperature of where was the US focus on defense and security? What are the US objectives? What are their priorities? And then how does the UK fit in with that? Identify areas where we are diverging from our foremost ally and partner and understanding if that matters or whether we need to then converge again.
Andrew Hammond: And with the ambassador and the station chief, would you sit down and say -- Obviously, the ambassador is in a different type of position. But would you sit down and say, here's our individual strategies, here's where the overlap, here's ways that we could help each other, or let's talk X or Y out?
Tim Woods: So we have -- there is a, what we'll call a country plan. And there are defense objectives in the country plan, which I then take with my team, and we put some detail into so that we can meet our country plan objectives so that -- so there is a master plan. It's not -- we don't just get up every day and make it up.
Andrew Hammond: Just wing it? [Laughing]
Tim Woods: [Laughing] Yeah, you know, every day, we just grab a big coffee and then decide what to do for the day. And then there's a piece of work I've just initiated, which is to review my British Defense Staff engagement strategy. So the last time that was revised was 2019. In the meantime, we've had a Defense Command paper, which has now been refreshed a couple of months ago. We've had an integrated review, which was refreshed back in the spring. So things have changed since 2019. We have seen a war in Europe. We've seen growing concerns about irredentist behavior from China in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits. So things have changed. So it stands to reason that I need to update my engagement strategy to make sure that it's consistent with the current UK defense and security policy, but also the ask from our US partner.
Andrew Hammond: And inputs as well from your partners?
Tim Woods: Yeah, so we talk about, we engage with our US interlocutors on a daily basis. So we understand what the ask is from them. We also speak to, very closely to, our Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand partners and France and Germany and Italy and Japan and, and, and, you know. And forgive me if there's any countries who would want to be on that list and I've left off, you know, because I could add Norway, the Netherlands, you know, the usual suspects, Poland. Give me a map so I don't offend anybody.
Andrew Hammond: And we hear a lot about Five Eyes for intelligence, but just for our listeners, is there an equivalent for the militaries of the Five Eyes countries? I mean, I know that part of The Five Eyes is the NSA is part of the Department of Defense. So, you know, it's part of it there, but just generally.
Tim Woods: I mean, obviously, the reason we call the special relationship, the foundation of the special relationship with the US, is intelligence. And it's sharing information where we trust each other. And then that's kind of broadened to the Five Eyes. So, as an example, I see my Four Eyes counterparts on a regular basis. You know, we had breakfast together earlier this week. I was around my Canadian friend's house on Saturday with a range of other DAs. So we see each other often. So there is something still very special about Five Eyes. But it's a bit like Fight Club, you know, the first rule of Five Club because it does upset people, you know, if you want in the Five Eyes club, yeah. [ Music ]
Andrew Hammond: To help you digest this episode, here is a short primer on Five Eyes. Five Eyes is, at heart, an intelligence-sharing relationship between the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, five largely English-speaking countries who were allies during both World Wars. Its origin can be traced back to the Second World War. Even before America entered the war in December 1941, the UK and the US were in secret talks to discuss their goals for the post-war world. After meeting in Newfoundland, Canada, Roosevelt and Churchill issued a joint statement in August 1941 that became known as the Atlantic Charter. This statement affirmed their mutual solidarity in both the present crisis and their joint desire for a post-war international order. After the US entered the war, the need for closer cooperation on intelligence and defense was obvious. And a series of agreements, some large, some small, knit the countries together. In 1943, for example, an understanding was reached to share signals intelligence, which was formalized in 1946 with an agreement now known as UKUSA. That's U-K-U-S-A. The Cold War consolidated this mutual cooperation between the Five Eyes countries. Signals intelligence and the US-UK relationship are at the heart of Five Eyes. But it was broadened out to include the other three countries and other forms of intelligence, for example, RAF film canisters that said on them "Five Eyes Only." This would be an example of imagery intelligence, or IMINT. The war was a major inflection point in the West, but also in international affairs. It ushered in the final stages of the British Empire but propelled the United States to superpower status with commitments all around the world. Collectively, if you think about the geography, Five Eyes encompasses large parts of the globe. And the depth and breadth of intelligence sharing is certainly rather unique in the annals of intelligence history. This does mean, though, that it is a focus of much acclaim, jealousy, mockery, and misunderstanding, as Tim says, kind of like Fight Club. [ Music ] I think it would be quite interesting now, just before we move on to the posting that you had before you came to Washington, which is really fascinating, could you just tell our listeners a little bit about your career in the Royal Navy?
Tim Woods: So, yeah, so, I -- it's 35 years now, and I joined straight from school as a fresh-faced 18-year-old. I did my training at Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. And then my sea training before I had the third place at university. So I spent three years at Cambridge reading physics and maths. And then I rejoined the Navy again and did further deployments on ships. Then I was selected for service in submarines and served with submarines, which is, I think, the first time I really then had exposure to working with the US because I was on the Trident program. And I spent a lot of time coming over to the US for meetings on the weapons system and making sure, again, we were absolutely aligned in everything we did with the US. So that -- that was a very enjoyable experience. And then I -- then I had a number of staff appointments in our ministry of defense working on the future program for the Navy. So I was the programmer in our big defense and security review of 2010 and was responsible for the money that was for our carriers, so HMS Queen Elizabeth, HMS Prince Wales, and our new Type 26 anti-submarine frigates. I spent just under a year in Afghanistan in 2013, 2014, where I was working, again, closely with the US. I was doing J2 intelligence, strategic intelligence, which again, great relationship with the US, where I was, you know, allowed no foreign access, if I'm allowed to say that.
Andrew Hammond: You are. [Laughs]
Tim Woods: And then some further appointments in Arm Initiative Defense, including working for our Chief of Defense Staff as was -- as his secretary arranging his weekly operations updates, the updates to ministers, and also his meetings with his service chiefs. So that was a fascinating role. Really enjoyed, you know, seeing firsthand how he managed his time and how he managed the ministry of defense. Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: And through this journey, you've had more exposure to -- increasing exposure to intelligence, to secrets, to classified programs, and so forth?
Tim Woods: I think, yeah. I mean, every officer, as they move through their career, then, you know, it's information, and it's intelligence that inform decisions. And therefore, we have to be, you know, evidence-based in our policymaking and how we look at the world. So intelligence is critical to that. Not just classified intelligence but open-source intelligence and actually making the most of all sources so that we don't get sold on one solution that might sound sophisticated. But actually, we're taking a cross-fix using lots of different information so that we can -- our reading of the world and our reading of a situation is as accurate as possible. It goes back to, you know, doing physics. You know, you do experiments to test what you should be doing, and you refine it. And it's the same with intelligence. You take all source information, and you make changes to how you either see the world or how you operate.
Andrew Hammond: So occasionally, someone will say all of this intelligence stuff, it's fun, you know, spies, intelligence. But when has it ever really mattered? And my first response is always go away and read about the Battle of Midway.
Tim Woods: Yup.
Andrew Hammond: So, you know, this is not inconsequential stuff we're talking about, right?
Tim Woods: Absolutely not. I mean, obviously, I'm not a spy. So I don't, you know, I don't go and get all this, you know, high grades --
Andrew Hammond: Just intelligence. Yeah.
Tim Woods: -- you know, information. But I'm utterly reliant on it. And, as I say, it doesn't have to be, you know, signals, intercept, sophisticated or, you know, high-grade human intelligence. It can be stuff that's out there, but it's triangulating it. That's where you add the value.
Andrew Hammond: And I think it would be interesting to go on now to discuss what you've done before you came to Washington. So this is really fascinating because you actually came directly from that post to this post. So could you tell the listeners what that was?
Tim Woods: So, more or less. So I spent just under three years as our Defense Attaché in Ukraine. And I left Ukraine last summer. Therefore, you know, I watched firsthand the Russian buildup from Spring 2021. But before that, I'd visited places now that everyone seems to have heard of in the news. So, Avdiivka, Bakhmut, Mariupol, you know, these are all places that I was able to visit back in 2019, 2020 when I was there. And it was fascinating, both living and working in Ukraine. Obviously, Ukraine is rightly and proudly and justifiably independent. It gained its independence in 1991. And, you know, the people there, they have chosen democracy. And that is a threat to autocrats and despots like Vladimir Putin, who don't want to see a fledgling democracy on the doorstep, a fledgling democracy that was, until 1991, part of the Soviet Union and governed by the Communist Party. And it's interesting. There are obviously legacy Soviet things that still need to be removed from Ukraine. My wife and I used to have, shall we say, uninvited guests at our apartment. There was one occasion back in 2020 when I was traveling, and she heard some -- she heard noise in the middle of the night. And when she had gone to bed the night before, our then one-year-old had a big floor puzzle that was to all four corners of the dining room. And my wife came in in the morning, it was all beautifully done. There were other times when candelabras would be up -- moved upside down. And things would be moved around demonstrably to know -- just to let us know that, you know, we'd been visited and that they could do that. But we just assumed as well that the apartment was wired for sound and video, that any conversation there was recorded. I said that we saw the buildup of Russian forces from March 2021, although Shoigu called a temporary halt to the exercise in April, but the stuff didn't go away. The people may have gone away, but the kit remained. And then in the latter half of 2021, we saw the kit building again and the people building but also the indicators that this was probably going to result in war because we saw some of the medical enablers, blood, platelets also moving across the border and on Crimea. So we knew that something was very likely to happen, you know. And, I mean, the prediction that the Russians would invade Ukraine, you know, were based on some very sophisticated intelligence. My role was to see what the Ukrainians were doing to prepare for that. And so I had a brilliant deputy who was fluent in Russian, had been at university in Moscow, had been our Defense Attaché in Minsk before he was kicked out at 24 hours' notice. So my brilliant Deputy, and he was a Tank Commander, you know, a really seasoned Defense Attaché who is utterly professional. And he and I would travel to the Northern Oblast just to see what preparations the Ukrainians were making, whether we could see any form of mobilization, defensive preparations but also where we thought the Russian tanks might have problems. And again, Tam, my Deputy, was able to predict where they would be channeled. And because of the terrain at the time, it was unlikely that they would go off metal roads and all the rest of it because of the mud. Then also, in the north of Ukraine, there's lots of forests. So, again, which is not good, I am now led believe, for tank maneuver warfare. And Tam virtually predicted that column of tanks that we ended up seeing in March, late February, March 2022, that was stuck. And Tam effectively predicted that. And we were challenging what I think was the received -- The received wisdom is that Russian tanks would be in Kyiv within five days. Most people thought this was just going to be a walk in the park. Whereas we were saying, that was not going to be the case. That the Ukrainians, very proud of their democracy and independence, would fight for their country. This was not the Afghan National Security Force that was going to fold and run away. These were people who would fight. And I remember speaking to a Ukrainian general over lunch in December 2021. And we were talking about all of this buildup. And he was saying what he was doing in terms of preparing and where he was using intelligence to see where the invasion would come, what the vectors would be. And he said, "We will fight for our country. We will kill at least 50,000 Russians," which seemed a staggering figure. Obviously, now we look at the casualties that the Russians have sustained through their strategic miscalculation of invading Ukraine. It's a lot higher, but, you know, even at the time, 50,000 meant that the Ukrainians would fight hard. Sadly, he also predicted that the Ukrainians would suffer at least 10 million internally displaced people, or people who would have to leave the country, because he recognized the scale of the invasion and what that would mean to Ukraine. I mean, it is staggering that here in 2023, we are seeing the worst conventional war since, arguably, since 1945 or the Korean War. And it's happening in Europe where we never thought we would see the like again and the kind of war that, in places, looks like 1914 to 1918.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. There's a couple of things I want to follow up on there. For our listeners that don't know it, could you just give them a very brief understanding of what Ukraine is like? Is it mountainous? Is it flat? You mentioned the forest in the north. Just super quick overview so they have an idea on that.
Tim Woods: So it's very flat, apart from in the West. So you've got the sort of the Carpathian Mountains in the west. The rest of it is very -- It's a very flat. It's a step. It's the start of the step, so great for tank warfare. And if you think back in, sort of, 1941 to '45, you either went south of the border with Belarus, or you went north because there's a marsh across. You know, the border between Belarus and Ukraine is a marsh. So you either go south in Ukraine or you go north on the sort of, the Smolensk Highway. It's a very beautiful country as well. You know, you've got on the south coast, Odesa, Mykolaiv, beautiful beaches, the Black Sea coast. It's lovely. The people are incredibly friendly. The food is amazing. Borsch, everyone has heard of Borsch, you know, is absolutely superb. The vodka is smooth and cheap. You know, $4 for a liter of the finest vodka you can find.
Andrew Hammond: Wow.
Tim Woods: So yeah, amazing. And I talked about the people being friendly. Where, the apartment block where we lived, a lot of apartment blocks have a babushka or a grandmother who's there to -- for security and safety and all the rest of it, who -- who sits there just monitoring what's going on. I once got sent back upstairs. I wasn't allowed to leave my apartment until I put a hat on because it was that cold. And every time that we took our daughters out, they would -- they would check them to make sure that they were properly insulated from the cold before we went out. Because the winters are cold. I remember we got down to minus 39, really, really, really, really cold. And literally walking across the road without gloves on, you would end up with, you know, real pain. So you had to really wrap up. [ Music ]
Andrew Hammond: Many people know that in his speech at Fulton, Missouri, in 1946, Winston Churchill coined the phrase "Iron Curtain." What is less well known is that in this same speech, he coined the term "special relationship" used to describe the bilateral relationship between Britain and the United States. That, as Tim mentions in this episode, is Britain's most important. Here's a short clip from Churchill's speech.
Winston Churchill: The United States stands at this time at the pinnacle of world power. It is a solemn moment for the American Democracy. For with primacy in power is also joined an awe-inspiring accountability to the future. If, as you look around you, if you look around you, you must feel not only the sense of duty done, but also you must feel anxiety lest you fall below the level of achievement. Opportunity is here now, clear and shining for both our countries. To reject it or ignore it or fritter it away will bring upon us all the long reproaches of the after-time. It is necessary that constancy of mind, persistency of purpose, and the grand simplicity of decision shall rule and guide the conduct of the English-speaking peoples in peace as they did in war. We must, and I believe we shall prove ourselves equal to this severe requirement.
Andrew Hammond: Here in Washington, I'm guessing, it's a very different experience.
Tim Woods: Yeah, I mean, the surveillance of our attachés, you know, in certain countries, and you could probably guess which countries, it's there, you know, 24/7, apartments wired for sound and often with video, cars, you know, bugs placed in cars. It's just the way, I mean, especially -- and especially in Moscow. There was a US colleague who'd had a really long day at work, who got back one night who was having a shower. And the hot water went off, and she screamed, "Can you just leave me alone for one -- one day?" And she got home from work the next day, and there was a box of chocolates and a note. And the note said, not us this time.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. [Laughs] Is that something that has always happened there, or does it get better or worse depending on where the relationship is?
Tim Woods: I think that's always there. That means they have to keep an eye on our diplomats and to try and get control of that, you know, the sort of, you know, the realities of the honey trap are true. You know, I had four honey trap attempts on me in Ukraine, and you're looking at me. It's not because of my good looks. It's not because of my wit and repartee, you know? Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: [Laughing] They're slipping. Those types of postings, it must be, in some ways, quite an ominous thing, you know, that you're going to go there. If you go there with your partner, I mean, everything is out there.
Tim Woods: Yeah. I mean, don't get me wrong. I absolutely loved, and my family loved living in Ukraine. At no point did we feel unsafe. At no point did we feel risk. At no point did we worry about the fact that our apartment was wired for sound and video. That was just a part of life. I know there were other colleagues from other countries who did find it oppressive and became a bit paranoid that they thought they were always being followed. Yeah, just assume you're being followed. But don't try and be clever about it.
Andrew Hammond: Mm-hmm. Don't end up sleeping in your closet and things like that.
Tim Woods: Yeah. But in places like Moscow, it is oppressive. You know, I remember one of our previous defense attachés -- Because I was supposed to go to Moscow. So, originally, I was selected to go and be the defense attaché in Moscow.
Andrew Hammond: Oh, you were?
Tim Woods: And then the Skripal incident, the Salisbury poisonings happened. And we kicked out loads of Russians. And they kicked out all but one of our defense section in Moscow. And we made the decision we would de-enrich from a one-star to a naval captain. So suddenly, all these FSB and GRU officers, instead of having to follow ten people, there was just one person. And he told me that one -- one day, there were 23 different people he saw following him --
Andrew Hammond: Wow.
Tim Woods: -- including someone who sat next to him on the metro by basically evicting the person who was already there. That same person was then at the same table -- next to -- the table next to him at lunch.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. Subtle.
Tim Woods: Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: You mentioned a little bit about what you do here in the United States. That's completely similar when you're in Ukraine. You meet people on Ukrainian defense. You meet other defense attachés. Do you also meet the defense minister or the president?
Tim Woods: Yeah. So, I mean, it's interesting. So I was lucky enough to meet President Zelensky a few times. But I used to see the defense minister and the chief of defense on a regular basis. I brought the chief of defense, when it was a general contract, I brought him to the UK. I was able to go and see General Valery Zaluzhny on a number of occasions. And I think that's the difference because, in Ukraine, I had them on speed dial. And I could have those engagements whenever I needed to. And one of the things I'm passionate about is the role of a defense attaché is persistent defense engagement in time of peace to prepare for time of crisis and war so that we've got the connective tissue in place when crisis happens. And therefore, I could bring in some real experts and specialists to support in different ways in time of crisis. It's different here because we've got such a big footprint. So here, I've only met, had the privilege to meet General Milley once. But I don't need to because I have an air commodore and, before that a brigadier who is permanently based in the Pentagon who manages that relationship for my Chief of Defense Staff. And I've got liaison officers across all the other areas. I've got an air attaché, a naval attaché, and a military attaché who manage the single service relationships. So I'm more like a conductor of an orchestra here. I basically stand back and test the temperature of the relationship across all of those areas rather than actually always doing the defense. Yes, I do from time to time, I will meet, and I will host receptions, and I will go to meetings. But most of the time, I'm there looking across. And therefore, I do more, maybe on Capitol Hill and with think tanks and with media, than I used to. And that's an opportunity to land messages to reinforce our support for the US and other allies.
Andrew Hammond: So let's turn to, now, where you were -- where you were when Russia invaded Ukraine. That's quite an interesting thing to have lived through to actually have been in Ukraine when it happened.
Tim Woods: Yes. And the confusion as well. So, as I say, we'd been watching this force build and build and build. We'd seen the enablers coming in. We'd seen intent. And even though my Chief of Defense Staff and Secretary of State for Defense visited Moscow to see Gerasimov and Shoigu in the middle of February, you know, they were lied to. My Chief of Defense said to Gerasimov, are you going to invade Ukraine? And Gerasimov said no. You know, that was a week before. So, our embassy, we were prepared for this eventuality. And so our families were evacuated at the end of January as we saw this wasn't a case of if. It was a case of when. And then we started to remove all sensitive material from the embassy. And then we moved all of our people either back to Poland, back to the UK. But then we established a British embassy office in Lviv, in a hotel on the outskirts of Lviv. And that left my ambassador, my military attaché, and I in Kyiv. And, you know, my military attaché, you know, with my driver, Sergei, who was just so, it was wonderful. And we would carry on doing business as usual. And we were able to speak to all manner of interesting people at that time. I'm happy to say that I met the founder of the Azov Regiment, who, against all Russian disinformation, misinformation, is not a far-right extremist. He's actually a very rational, very well-spoken, very clear-minded individual. And I remember he looked me in the eye, and he said, "Tim, I have sent all my people to Mariupol where they will die. But they will kill many, many thousands of Russians." And that's exactly what happened in Azovstal, in the steelworks there, where, you know, the Azov regiment and Ukrainian Marines were just heroic in holding out against, you know, the barbaric advances of the Russian army. So we were in Kyiv until around the 18th, 19th of February when the prime minister said, right, now is the time to go. Now is the time to leave Kyiv. And that was interesting because I was really angry because I felt like I was walking away from my Ukrainian friends. You know, it was obviously the right call by the prime minister. But it was very difficult to have to leave. And it was like being your car has stalled on a railway crossing. And you can see the express coming towards you, and by this time, you've flooded the engine. And the car won't start, and you're just bracing yourself for impact. It was -- it felt like that. We knew that the writing was on the wall. I mean, we knew that there was going to be an invasion. But by that stage, it was, right, this can happen at any point now. You know, people have talked about previously of the 16th of February being D-Day, but that came and passed. We were still in Kyiv at the time. And yeah, after the 21st of February, it was just a case of if or when. In fact, that night, the US and the Canadians left to go to Poland. Because, for them, it was, right, this is imminent now. I woke up at 2:00 in the morning. I mean, I'd been waking up at 2:00 in the morning anyway because part of what we had been told was that the Russians would strike in the early morning. And when we're in Kyiv, it would probably be with the internet going down and missile strikes coming in. So by that stage, I was in the habit of waking at two every morning, checking my phone, see whether I still had internet connection, and seeing if I'd heard any loud bangs. But on the morning of the 24th, I woke up, checked the internet, checked the BBC news and saw that basically the Russians had announced notice to airmen that they had shut the whole of the airspace in North and Eastern Ukraine. And, you know, my blood went cold because this is, it's happening. So I got up. I went down into the office. My ambassador joined me shortly after at about three in the morning. And we took the news of basically the Russians crossing from Crimea into Kherson, from Belarus into Zhytomyr, into Sumy, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, you know, everywhere. And we took messages from Ukrainians in the Ministry of Defense to find out how things were for them. And, you know, they were reporting back, you know, that they were having to retreat. By that stage, there was a incredibly bitter battle around Hostomel Airport. So it's where the Antonov plant is. And it's about 13 kilometers northwest of the center of Kyiv. To my mind, that is still the decisive battle of this war to date. When both -- It was toing and froing, before the Ukrainians finally managed to expunge the Russians. And at some points there were Russian troop aircraft ready to land. If Hostomel Airport had fallen, I do think Kyiv would have fallen, you know. And the Ukrainians fought heroically to keep that in Ukrainian hands and to stop the Russians taking it and then that being the bridgehead to take the rest of Kyiv. At that point as well, sabotage squads were parachuting in in broad daylight into Kyiv. You know, there was -- there were assassination teams looking to assassinate President Zelensky and all his senior people. You know, it was -- there was lots of confusion. I remember when I was able to go back into Kyiv in April, so it was literally so after we were in Lviv, we left to go to Poland, where the logistics effort was gearing up. And we were supporting that with Ukrainian interpreters and Ukrainian liaison officers. We were able to go back in, and it was very humbling, the journey back in where there was clear evidence of bitter fighting. There were bridges down. There were burnt-out Russian tanks and infantry-fighting vehicles. All the signs were riddled with shells and rounds. There were roadblocks coming into Kyiv because they controlled access and egress. But it was slightly bizarre because when we got into the center of Kyiv, and I got back to see my apartment, it felt as if nothing had changed apart from the fact that babushkas had left. Restaurants were open, albeit there was a curfew. And certainly, by the time I left in July, you know, Kyiv was bristling again with activity. And, aside from air raid sirens and air raids, you would not know there was a war. It was -- it was peculiar.
Andrew Hammond: And do you know if your nanny is okay with this?
Tim Woods: So we've kept in contact with her. She finally made it to Poland. I mean, it's interesting. I told her to get out of Kyiv a week before the war started, so she did. But she returned on the 23rd of February because her son needed to go to school. And then she was finally able to get out on the train from Kyiv Central Station to Lviv and then into Poland.
Andrew Hammond: And during this period of time, would -- did Russia still have a defense attaché or an ambassador in Kyiv?
Tim Woods: No. No. And the Belarussians also left, which was a good combat indicator. The Chinese stayed throughout, which, yeah, which was interesting.
Andrew Hammond: This is completely unconnected to the general tenor of our conversation, but did you ever meet Wladimir Klitschko?
Tim Woods: I did.
Andrew Hammond: Did you?
Tim Woods: Yeah. And his office were absolutely wonderful. You know, when, during COVID, you needed a special pass to be allowed to travel on the metro. And we needed that for our nanny because she's traveling on the metro from Obolon. And he himself, you know, made sure that we had passes. You know, lovely and charismatic, you know. And, you know, it's because of people like Klitschko and Budanov and Zaluzhny and Reznikov, the Defense Minister, and many other generals, you know, Shaptala, you know, and, and, and. It's because of people like that and women as well, you know, Olga Stefanishyna, who's the Deputy Prime Minister for Euro-Atlantic, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk, because people like that, that you know that Ukraine will never lose because they are proud of their independence. And they are proud of Ukraine.
Andrew Hammond: Just as we get to the end of the interview, Tim, one thing that I wanted to ask was, I noted that at the Royal College of Defense Studies, which is a prestigious defense college in the UK where some of the most promising officers get sent, you were awarded the Wellington Prize for Strategic Analysis. So I feel like I wouldn't be doing my job properly if I didn't ask you what your strategic analysis was of what we're seeing now in Ukraine 18-odd months into the war.
Tim Woods: I mean, as I look at the situation at the moment, I don't -- I think Putin is in this for the long term. He wrote a fantastical 5,000-word essay in July 2021 which kind of laid out hackneyed and false positions how the Russians and the Ukrainians had always being one people and how basically Ukrainians had to thank the Russians and the Muscovites for everything, which is, you know, Kyiv was in place long before the -- before Moscow. Moscow was a swamp, or rather, St. Petersburg was a swamp and, you know, Moscow was just nothing. Anyway --
Andrew Hammond: Kyivan Rus.
Tim Woods: The Kyivan Rus, yeah. He wants to see the reassembly of the Soviet Union. Putin is in this for the long haul. You've seen that already by Russians fighting with spades rather than guns. You know, he will just grind this on. And that's why it's been so important for the US, UK, and our many allies to keep giving Ukraine the means to fight on because the Ukrainians will fight. They will not stop fighting. When I asked an amazing man who is the head of the Ukrainian National Defense and Security Council in January 2022, I said, what's your plan? And he says it's a nail on a tree. I said, what do you mean by that? He said, well, back when we were fighting the Nazis, there would be nails on trees in forests with nets. And at night, the people would bring food so the partisans were fueled and able to carry on the fight. He says that's our plan. We will not surrender. And so the Ukrainians, you know, this is a fight for national survival. This is a fight for democracy over dictatorship. This is a fight for the rules-based international system. And Ukraine is fighting that war for all of us. And we are giving Ukraine the means to do that. So whether it's with Abrams tanks, whether it's with Storm Shadow missiles, whether it's with HIMARS, 155-millimeter shells, air defense systems like Patriot, we are giving the means to the Ukrainians to do that. And they will carry on fighting. And they will not surrender. So I'm optimistic. At some point, he is going to realize he cannot win this militarily. And he will have to find an alternative solution. And that's what we're showing him. And that's what the Ukrainians are showing him.
Andrew Hammond: I think, yeah, we've done a really good job of exploring your job and your time in Ukraine. And thanks ever so much. I've really enjoyed speaking to you, and I feel enlightened.
Tim Woods: No, thank you. [ Music ] [ Music ]
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Please follow us on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have feedback, you can reach us by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at intlspycast. If you go to our page at thecyberwire.com /podcasts/spycast, you can find links to further resources and detailed show notes and field transcripts. I'm your host, Andrew Hammond. My podcast content partner is Erin Dietrich. The rest of the team involved in the show is Mike Mincey, Memphis Vaughn III, Emily Coletta, Emily Renz, Afua Anokwa, Elliott Peltzman, Tré Hester, and Jen Eiben. This show is brought to you from the home of the world's preeminent collection of intelligence and espionage-related artifacts, the International Spy Museum. [ Music ]