At the Russian-controlled roadblocks around Gori, the deadpan soldiers are firm but restrained, searching cars and checking identification, but not too rigorously.
They are less a physical threat than a symbol of Moscow's apparent determination to keep some troops inside Georgia, humiliate its government and thumb their noses at the country's Western allies.
Some Georgians fear Russia hopes their checkpoints and convoys deep inside Georgian territory will provoke a clash that Russia could claim as a violation of the cease-fire.
Russia denies it, saying it is committed to a cease-fire deal. But the longer its troops occupy main roads and towns, the higher the risk that tension could boil over into confrontation.
The checkpoints produce a lot of frustration.
Russian control of the roads and uncertainty about the security situation has made it difficult for international groups to deliver aid, contributing to the desperation of Georgians in Gori and outlying villages.
In the town, long lines of people jostle for bread at bakeries and aid delivery stations.
Georgian troops, pounded by Russian air power after they assaulted Georgia's separatist region of South Ossetia on Aug. 7, now stay clear of the Russian armored vehicles that are grinding Georgia's blacktop roads into loose asphalt.
Some Georgian soldiers speak bitterly of what they think is a Russian campaign to dismantle their infrastructure, discredit President Mikhail Saakashvili and deliver a message to Europe and the United States: in this part of the world, they call the shots.
For now tensions near Gori, a strategic town on Georgia's main east-west highway, are largely confined to a few curses and insults muttered by armed men in uniform loitering in the summer sun.
When Russian tanks rolled into nearby Igoeti, a Georgian village that is little more than a cluster of kiosks, Georgian police mingled briefly with the Russian troops.
But they insulted them when they were out of earshot. "If those tanks had tires, we would spike them," one officer said.
The Russians, in turn, express contempt for the U.S.-trained Georgia military, which wilted under their attack. And they mock Georgia's Western-style democratic government, compared with Russia's more authoritarian political system _ sometimes called "sovereign democracy."
At one roadblock, a Russian soldier argued with a Georgian civilian.
"Your democracy is American," he sneered.
Russia has cited intelligence that "terrorists" plan to put on Russian uniforms and commit atrocities. True or not, such reports fuel tension as Russian troops show signs of both digging in and scaling back, possibly in a calculated effort to pressure Georgia _ now a proxy for conflict between Russia and the West _ while deflecting accusations of cease-fire violations.
"Georgian special units are conducting preparation for mounting terrorist attacks on the territory of South Ossetia and neighboring districts," Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, deputy head of Russia's general staff, said Wednesday.
Russia's Interfax news agency quoted the head of Russia's domestic security service, the FSB, as saying Georgia was plotting attacks on infrastructure in Russia.
"All those are false reports," said Alexander Lomaia, Georgia's security council chief. "They can just stage that kind of assault or attack on some of their units in order to stay here longer."
Lomaia said Russia's control of key Georgian roads were part of a plan to "suffocate us economically" and "steer anger among the population, which can be channeled toward the government of this country."
Wearing a baseball cap and civilian clothes, Lomaia spoke Wednesday in Gori's main square near a statue of Soviet dictator and native son Josef Stalin, who was half Ossetian and half Georgian and a local hero despite his brutal reign.
Lomaia's low-key demeanor contrasts with his ruddy-faced, Russian counterpart in negotiations, Maj. Gen. Vyacheslav Borisov, who often gestures and raises his voice.
The Russians appear to have removed one major threat to security in the Gori area, the South Ossetian militiamen who have been accused of shooting unarmed Georgian civilians in some villages.
Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. envoy who mediated peace in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, visited Georgia and said "ethnic cleansing" took place, though the violence was on a much smaller scale than during the Balkan wars.
Georgia, meanwhile, has been criticized for unleashing rockets on the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, putting civilians at risk.
Few Russian troops move around Gori, but it is essentially an occupied city because they control access points on key roads and bridges.
In an encampment along the road to South Ossetia, soldiers walked around in olive-colored tents, washed themselves and scrubbed cooking utensils in a stream. They positioned a howitzer facing skyward, perhaps to prevent any saboteurs from rolling a grenade down the barrel.