Waller joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1985 in the same intake as Frances Adamson, now secretary of the Department. She recalls how each of the 26 new recruits had to deliver a short self-introduction. Glenn was brief and to the point: ‘‘I have a Master’s degree in Russian and a black belt in karate.’’
Glenn and Agnès moved to Mexico City for his first diplomatic posting in 1987, where he was responsible for Central America. He was also involved with establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, where he developed a taste for Cuban cigars.
From Mexico he was seconded to the Office of National Assessment in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. He got on well with Bob Hawke and was his favoured translator for the telephone meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin in the exciting early days of Glasnost and Perestroika in a changing Soviet Union.
The next posting was Moscow as first secretary and subsequently counsellor. It was during this time that Waller had the distinction of being the first and only foreigner to address the Russian parliament, the Duma, in Russian. He politely told them what they needed to do to fix their broken post-Soviet economy.
After back-to-back postings in Moscow, he accepted a position as chairman of the Petroleum Advisory Forum, an industry body backed by Western oil and gas companies. ExxonMobil took note of his skill as a patient and master negotiator, and offered him a job in their Russian division.
Waller’s expertise was recognised in Russia and beyond and soon, the world’s biggest miner, BHP, was knocking on his door. He left Exxon to become the president of BHP Eurasia in 2006.
It wasn’t too long before Exxon returned with a bigger offer, president of ExxonMobil Russia. They told Waller, he ‘‘was the only one who could do the job’’.
He took the job with Exxon and remained there until his last days. On his last conference call with his team, just two days before his death, he inspired them with optimism and enthusiasm for the difficult tasks ahead in the light of US sanctions.
In his role as president of Exxon, he was able to negotiate impossible deals with difficult people and remain friends with all sides. He knew how to approach the Russian rule-makers and he knew how to get the job done such that all sides felt included and advantaged. It was a unique skill. He was always patient, respectful, and never bullying or hectoring.
He skilfully managed a 25-year extension on the Sakhalin oil and gas development in the far east of Russia, a feat previously considered impossible in view of the sanctions imposed by the US Congress. When the lawyers from Moscow and Houston were butting heads and getting nowhere with their negotiations, Glenn would quietly meet with his great friend, Zeljko Runje, a former Exxon colleague who became senior vice president of Rosneft, and over a Cuban cigar and a glass of French wine would find a way through. Their compromise would gain assent from the highest levels in the Russian government and be delivered as a fait accompli to the incredulous lawyers, who would retreat to their desks to write up the agreement.
In another deal, against all odds, Waller managed to secure the partnership for the giant Victory Field in the Kara Sea in the Russian Arctic. This single deal effectively doubled Exxon’s global exploration footprint. He managed this by convincing both sides to agree that Rosneft should co-invest with Exxon in Canadian oil fields, as well as their joint venture in the Kara Sea, thereby reducing the sovereign and legal risks to all parties.
There is perhaps no other person who was as welcomed in the Kremlin as in the White House, where he was a frequent visitor, and indeed in our own Parliament House. His knowledge of Russia was so deep that it didn’t escape the attention of the US State Department or indeed Henry Kissinger, who would insist on meeting with him whenever he travelled to New York. Kissinger came to highly respect him and would spend hours quizzing him to get an inside update on the true state of affairs in Russia.
Waller was well known among Australian politicians and often met prominent MPs visiting Moscow, including Julie Bishop, Bob Carr and Kevin Rudd. He also knew Malcolm Turnbull from the Turnbull/Wran gold mining expedition to Siberia in 1993, detailed in Turnbull’s autobiography, A Bigger Picture. They met again in 2018 when Turnbull hosted him in his prime ministerial office for a briefing on Russia.
Waller spent more than 28 years in Russia, during which time he made many life-long friends from all walks of life and met prominent individuals including the novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Neil Armstrong. He was a friend of Mikhail Gorbachev and the celebrated Russian filmmaker, Vladimir Motyl, who would say that Glenn spoke the language so well that he could pass as Russian. As noted by journalist Geoff Winestock in his 2017 article in the Australian Financial Review: ”Waller’s excellent Russian helped him fit in: he can talk both the refined language of the poet Pushkin and the slang men use in the bathhouse where business gets done.″ This article was titled “Tillerson’s Australian Agent in the Kremlin”.
Waller walked humbly on the world stage and made and kept friends wherever he went, from the local baker to the heads of the world’s biggest companies. He remained friends with colleagues who now occupy the presidencies of Kazakhstan and Armenia. Russian colleagues at Rosneft have described him as an Australian with a Russian soul.
However, Glenn Waller was more than our man in Russia. He was a devoted family man and loved nothing more than spending time with his wife and children. Anyone lucky enough to visit Glenn and Agnès anywhere would have experienced their warmth and generosity. He was a keen tennis player and swimmer – he would swim 3km every morning before work. He also loved driving and would often go for long drives in his Ariel Atom on the country roads of Provence, taking anyone brave enough to go with him.
Glenn Waller was a home-grown working-class hero who achieved greatness in an incredible life.
Glenn is survived by his wife Agnès, children Catherine and Julien.
Craig, Agnès and Catherine Waller