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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nostalgia for the Good Old War

I miss the Cold War. I know I ought not to, but I just can't help it. So I was naturally delighted by last week's spy story. Admittedly, as one of the papers here in London cruelly remarked, it was more Johnny English than James Bond.

In a television documentary that had Kremlin fingerprints all over it, four British Embassy staffers were accused of being spooks. Blurred video footage purported to show them fiddling with a rock in a Moscow suburb. According to Russian counterespionage, the rock contained an illicit electronic device for communicating with Russian "accomplices."

Well, it's possible. But why would Her Majesty's Men in Moscow want to conceal what they were up to if, as the Russians allege, they were merely transferring funds to Russian nongovernmental organizations? Only in the fevered imagination of President Vladimir Putin, the ex-Soviet spook who now runs Russia, do NGOs figure as subversive entities.

Putin's crackdown on NGOs is part of a wider pattern of behavior that strongly suggests that my nostalgia for the Cold War is shared in the Kremlin.

In recent weeks, first Ukraine and now Georgia have been made to feel their dependence on Russian energy supplies, which are firmly back under state control after the purge of the Yeltsin-era oligarchs.

"Gasputin," as the Georgians now like to call the Russian president, has been openly hostile to the governments in those two former Soviet republics, both of which came to power after revolutions ("orange" and "rose" in color, respectively) overthrew Kremlin stooges.

Meanwhile, work is going ahead on a new gas pipeline along the Baltic seabed, designed to send Russia's prime export directly to Western Europe, cutting out Ukraine and Poland.

Nobody can now pretend that Russia is just -- as the old Cold War joke had it -- "Upper Volta with rockets." Soaring energy prices have brought boom times to Russia, even if the returns mainly flow into the coffers of the new nomenklatura. The Russian stock market went up 80 percent last year. So if Putin wants Cold War II, you might be forgiven for thinking he can certainly afford to have it.

Of course, I was not being entirely serious when I said that I miss the Cold War. I would never wish the Soviet Union back, not least for the sake of the Poles, the Czechs, the Hungarians and all the other peoples who won back their liberty in 1989.

What makes me nostalgic is that Soviet wickedness made politics so much simpler in my youth. All you had to do was to go to the Eastern Bloc to see what a real military-industrial complex looked like -- and to feel for yourself what the absence of freedom really meant.

Every time I took the S-Bahn to Friedrichstrasse, the old gateway to East Berlin, I shuddered at the knowledge that I was entering the realm of despotism -- a place where there were no rights to privacy, to property or to political representation. Now you need to take a trip to North Korea if you want to get that salutary feeling, which did so much to clarify my own political views.

So a new Cold War might be good for Western Europe, just as it would be bad for Eastern Europe, for the simple reason that we would be reminded of the value of our hard-won freedoms -- freedoms we increasingly seem to take for granted.

But relax; it isn't going to happen.

Today, Russia is so far behind the United States as to be out of contention -- U.S. gross domestic product is now 20 times that of the Russian Federation. Moreover, today's world is multi-polar, not only economically -- China's economy is now nearly three times larger than Russia's -- but also militarily. Just think of all those other nuclear powers: Britain and France; China and North Korea; Pakistan and India; and Israel and, perhaps soon, Iran.

The other key difference between the Cold War era and the present is, of course, the role of Islamic fundamentalism on the global stage. With the benefit of hindsight, 1989 was not the decisive turning point of the late 20th century. That came 10 years earlier, in 1979 -- the year of the Iranian Revolution. And militant Islamism is now as big a headache for Russia as it is for Western Europe.

About 10 percent of the Russian population is Muslim, with heavy concentrations in republics such as Chechnya, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia and Tatarstan. The first four of these republics are in varying states of political instability because of separatist movements that have an increasingly Islamist complexion.

Indeed, when Putin contemplates the threat posed by Islamist separatists to the integrity of Russia itself, he must wonder how Russians like him could ever have been described as belonging to the "Eastern Bloc." The Islamists represent the real Orient; by comparison, Putin is as much a part of the West as I am.

And that, come to think of it, is another reason I can't help missing the Cold War.

Niall Ferguson is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, where this comment first appeared.