Take a Russian leader who accuses the US of flouting international law and threatens a new arms race. Add an American President who accuses Moscow of bullying its neighbours and who wants to deploy an anti-missile system on the outer marches of the old Soviet empire to protect them. Stir in an increasingly autocratic Kremlin that seeks to eliminate (perhaps even physically) its enemies, be they at home or in exile abroad.
A bare couple of decades ago, such ingredients added up to the old, real Cold War. History never repeats itself, Mark Twain famously remarked; at best it rhymes. Right now, however, the rhyming is becoming quite deafening.
The Soviet Union may be no more, and Russia no longer a superpower. But study the mix of circumstances, and a casual historian could be forgiven for believing a new Cold War is upon us.
For all the above elements are in place today, as they were back in the 1970s and early 1980s. "The United States has overstepped its national borders in every way," thunders the master of the Kremlin, "and as a result, no one feels safe ... such a policy stimulates an arms race." The speaker could have been Leonid Brezhnev a generation ago. In fact, it was Vladimir Putin, addressing a European security conference in Munich in February.
Back in those same early 1980s, Ronald Reagan sketched out his "Star Wars" vision of a strategic defence system to destroy incoming Soviet missiles. Today, the US is about to install an antimissile system in Poland and the Czech Republic, which Moscow denounces as the first step towards an American encirclement, aimed at rendering its own nuclear arsenal useless.
Domestically, too, Mr Putin's Russia is rekindling memories of the old repressive Soviet Union. These days, it is true, opposition is permitted - but not much. Criticise too harshly, and you risk sharing the fate of the crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in Moscow by persons unknown, or of Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB agent and Putin critic who was poisoned by polonium in London last year, in equally mysterious and suspicious circumstances.
Despite appearances, however, this is not a return to the past. The real Cold War ended in the storm-tossed seas off Malta in December 1989 - as this correspondent, who was there and not noted for his sea legs, uncomfortably and vividly remembers.
The Soviet Union staggered on for two more years, but at their summit aboard the cruise liner Maxim Gorky, Mikhail Gorbachev and the father of the current President Bush buried the hatchet. From that moment, the two countries no longer regarded each other as enemies - as Gennady Gerasimov, the suave Kremlin spokesman of the day, put it in a rhyme that Twain would have enjoyed: "From Yalta to Malta."
Almost 18 years later, that remains the case. "This isn't the first time since the end of the Cold War that that there's been talk of a new one," says Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of state and President Bill Clinton's point man for dealings with Russia. "Back in 1995, Boris Yeltsin talked of a 'cold peace'. What I see now is not a return to the old difficulties, but the exacerbation of new ones."
These new difficulties fall far short of war. In war, whether hot or cold, each side seeks victory. Right now Russia and the US glare icily at each other, but neither is seeking the elimination of the other. No longer do they offer rival ideological models; no longer is Europe, the prime battleground of the real Cold War, divided into two opposing, heavily armed military blocs.
True, Russia - not al-Qa'ida, Osama bin Laden or even China - remains the one state capable of wiping the US off the face of the Earth. But it has neither the intention nor the incentive to do so. In the bad old days, none knew better than Moscow's intelligence services the weaknesses of the Soviet Union and the limits to its power. …