BLUFFING….When it’s convenient to their own purposes, great powers can always be counted on to “assist” ethnic minorities in their desire to secede from their parent state. The Russians are currently doing this in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and regardless of whether you think Russia or Georgia was primarily responsible for starting the current conflict, one thing is clear:

Mr. Putin made clear that Russia now viewed Georgian claims over the breakaway regions to be invalid, and that Russia had no intention of withdrawing. “There is almost no way we can imagine a return to the status quo,” he said in remarks on Russian state television.

Sure, Putin just barely left the door open to some kind of face-saving pseudo-compromise with that word “almost,” but does anyone seriously think that Russia is ever going to withdraw its forces from either region? Georgia forced the issue on Thursday, possibly working under the delusion that they could win a lightning victory before Russia had time to respond, Russia called their bluff and won, and there’s now essentially no chance of Russia ever leaving the two disputed territories.

Now, it’s true that, having made his point — namely that the West should have negotiated more seriously on Kosovo, more seriously on missile defense systems in Russia’s backyard, and more seriously on NATO enlargement into former Soviet regions — Putin might be persuaded to allow Abkhazia and South Ossetia to remain soi disant autonomous regions. By the same token, however, if Putin is made to feel that he hasn’t yet made his point, he might decide to annex them outright. And despite George Bush’s enthusiasm earlier this year for granting Georgia entry into NATO — an enthusiasm shared by both John McCain and Barack Obama, by the way — it’s pretty plain that U.S. military assistance to Tbilisi is, in reality, not even a remote possibility. In effect, the Russians have called our bluff too.

And won. But that’s the problem with bluffs, isn’t it? Sometimes they’re a little too obvious.

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